By Linda Gradstein
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, February 21, 2009
JERUSALEM, Feb. 20 -- Ten days after inconclusive national elections, Israeli President Shimon Peres formally asked Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu on Friday to form the next government. Although the rival Kadima party, headed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, won 28 seats to Likud's 27, a majority of parliament members said they supported Netanyahu for prime minister.
Livni has said she will not join a Netanyahu-led government and is prepared to lead Kadima into opposition. A former Likud member, Livni has supported U.S.-backed peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, but Netanyahu and other politicians on the right of Israel's political spectrum are skeptical of or opposed to such talks.
If Netanyahu is unable to change Livni's mind, he will form a narrow right-wing government composed of 65 out of 120 members of parliament. Several of the far-right parties in the government have already said they would join a Likud-led coalition. But they are demanding that Netanyahu expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a move that would put the new Israeli government on a collision course with the Obama administration. And the smaller parties disagree among themselves on religious and other issues.
Netanyahu has six weeks to form a coalition, by either overcoming those divisions or persuading Livni and the head of the Labor Party, Ehud Barak, to join him in a broad unity government. A poll published in the Jerusalem Post newspaper this week found that two-thirds of the Israelis questioned support a broad national unity government.
"Let's unite to secure the future of the state of Israel," Netanyahu said, addressing Livni and Barak after meeting with Peres on Friday. "I ask to meet with you first to discuss a broad national unity government."
But at least for now, Barak and Livni say they will go into opposition. "A broad coalition has no value if it does not lead the way," Livni said after meeting with Peres. "This is a coalition that will damage the country."
A number of smaller parties have already said they will be part of Netanyahu's coalition. The largest of these, Yisrael Beiteinu, or Israel Is Our Home, is headed by ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman and won 15 seats in the elections, edging out the center-left Labor Party for third place. Yisrael Beiteinu is widely supported by Israel's Russian immigrant population, which includes an estimated 300,000 people who are not legally Jewish according to Orthodox Jewish law. The party wants a law permitting civil marriage and divorce in Israel, which currently allows only religious marriage and divorce proceedings. Lieberman has also sparked controversy with his support of a loyalty oath that Arab citizens of Israel would be forced to take to maintain their citizenship.
Lieberman's call for civil marriage is anathema to another of Netanyahu's expected coalition partners, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. Shas spokesmen have said they would not stay in any government that supports civil marriage.
Two other small right-wing parties have said their price for joining the government is a promise from Netanyahu to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank. That would contradict the U.S.-backed road map to peace, which calls on Israel to freeze all building in the West Bank.
Jewish settlement leaders said they hope a narrow Netanyahu government would allow them to build homes for hundreds of families who are on waiting lists to move into the settlements. They also hope that more than 100 existing but unauthorized outposts, often a handful of mobile homes set up on a hill to try to control as much of the West Bank as possible, will be given approval.
"I hope the new government has the courage to do this," said Dani Dayan, the head of the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. "At the same time, look at former prime minister Ariel Sharon. We were his most ardent supporters, we helped him get in, and then he withdrew from Gaza. After that, I say you can never really know."