Israel's Netanyahu kicks off coalition talks

Benjamin Netanyahu, the hawkish leader of Israel’s Likud party, was to start coalition talks with far-right and religious parties on Wednesday though he has not given up hope of forging a broadly based government.

The presumptive prime minister was due to kick off formal negotiations at an afternoon meeting with the Yisrael Beitenu party of ultra-nationalist MP Avigdor Lieberman.

He is then scheduled to hold talks with Shas and United Torah Judaism, two religious parties, before meeting the pro-settler Jewish Home and National Union parties on Thursday.

Netanyahu has made it clear he would far rather form a broad coalition government that includes the centrist Kadima party of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and the Labour party of Defence Minister Ehud Barak.

So far, both Kadima and Labour have rejected Netanyahu’s advances, but the Likud leader planned to meet Livni again on Friday in a last-ditch effort to convince her to join him in coalition.

Some Kadima members also remained hopeful a deal might be possible.

“Israel’s citizens did not give us 28 seats in order for us to sit in the opposition. But let it be clear, if we do not reach an agreement on government guidelines in the end, we will go to the opposition,” the Maariv daily quoted Kadima number two Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz as saying.

Netanyahu is evidently keen to avert a repeat of the situation in 1999, when his government collapsed following the defection of far-right parties that accused him of making concessions to Palestinians.

The prospect of a right-wing government has stirred fears the already hobbled Middle East peace talks, relaunched to great fanfare at a United States-sponsored conference in November 2007, could collapse altogether.

Livni has insisted she would not join a coalition “that would be against our ideals”, adding that the country needs “a government based on a two-state solution” for Palestinians and Israel.

But immediately following the Tuesday swearing-in of the new Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, Kadima introduced a Bill that could complicate the coalition talks.

The Bill would recognise civil unions as an alternative to religious marriage, a bone of contention between the secular Yisrael Beitenu and the religious parties Netanyahu is also courting.

While Likud, with 27 MPs, has one seat less than Kadima, Netanyahu emerged from the February 20 elections as the only one deemed able to rally sufficient support to form a government coalition.

Netanyahu can count on the support of 65 of the 120 members of Parliament, if he relies on parties to the right of his own as well as religious factions.

He has less than a month to put together a coalition. If necessary President Shimon Peres can extend the deadline by 14 days.

Israelis favour broadly based govt
Meanwhile, a poll published on Wednesday shows that most Israelis favour a broadly based government.

The most widely backed preference, at 36%, would be a coalition made up of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, Livni’s centrist Kadima and Barak’s left-of-centre Labour, the Tel Aviv University pollsters said.

Another 16% favour a centre-right alliance of Likud, Kadima and the far-right Yisrael Beitenu, a party that emerged third largest in February 10 parliamentary elections.

In contrast, 22% expressed a preference for a coalition of
Likud, Yisrael Beitenu and other right-wing parties.

The opinion poll was conducted by Tel Aviv’s Centre for Peace Research on February 17 and 18 and has a margin of error of 4,5 percentage points.—Sapa-AFP

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