Israeli President Shimon Peres was to hold day-long talks with party officials on Thursday and decide within four days who will be tasked with forming a new government, his spokesperson said.
”Following these consultations that should conclude on Thursday night, the president will make his choice known on Sunday or Monday,” said Ayelet Frish.
Peres on Wednesday met representatives of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s centrist Kadima and of hawkish former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, the two top vote-getters in the photo-finish February 10 election.
He planned to spend Thursday holding consultations with officials of the other 10 parties that will be represented in the new Knesset, the Israeli Parliament.
Because neither Kadima nor Likud won more than one-fourth of the 120 parliamentary seats, both have been courting other factions in a bid to obtain the majority support needed to form a government coalition.
But Defence Minister Ehud Barak said on Thursday morning he would support neither of the two main parties, according to army radio.
Barak’s Labour Party is a key partner in the outgoing, Kadima-led coalition, but has been displaced as the third largest parliamentary faction by the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party of former bouncer Avigdor Lieberman.
While Kadima won a razor-thin victory, pundits believe Netanyahu, has a better chance of building a majority.
But the Kadima delegation pressed the president, who is himself drawn from Livni’s centrist faction, to give the party the first go at attempting to forge a governing coalition.
”We told Mr Peres that the Kadima party is the best positioned to form a broad national unity government capable of bringing together left and right as we have the biggest room for manoeuvre,” outgoing Finance Minister Roni Bar-On said on Wednesday evening.
Likud MP Gideon Saar rejected that claim, insisting that Netanyahu was better placed to lead a new government.
”We are conscious of the economic and political challenges that the state must address, and want to form a government as quickly as possible,” he told Channel 10 television.
”Given the election’s outcome, we think Benjamin Netanyahu is the best placed to do so.”
Right-wing parties made dramatic gains overall in the election, which was held in the wake of Israel’s deadly 22-day offensive on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and was dominated by security concerns.
Under Israeli law, the task of forming a government does not automatically go to the party that garnered the most votes but to the one most likely to be able to form a majority coalition.
Kadima won 28 seats, just one more than Likud, but has far fewer potential coalition allies than its right-wing rival.
Kadima has suggested a power-sharing deal with Netanyahu similar to the one Israel had in 1984 after another close ballot, when the two top parties each held the post of prime minister for two years.
Netanyahu has so far rejected the rotating premiership option, but has made it clear he favours a broad coalition including Kadima, rather than an alliance with parties to the right of his own.
The overall shift to the right in the election has raised concern over the future of already hobbled peace talks with the Palestinians.
The talks have remained stalled as Livni and Netanyahu bid separately to form a workable governing coalition.
The person tasked by Peres to form a government will have 28 days to put together a coalition. If necessary Peres can extend the deadline by 14 days.
The election was called after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert handed in his resignation in September after being questioned by police over a series of graft scandals. He has stayed on as acting premier. — Sapa-AFP