Last-ditch effort for broad Israel govt collapses

Last-ditch efforts to form a broad-based Israeli coalition failed on Friday, paving the way for a rightist government and fuelling concerns about prospects for peace with the Palestinians.

Speaking after a 90-minute meeting with Tzipi Livni, foreign minister and leader of the centrist Kadima party, hawkish premier-designate Benjamin Netanyahu said he had failed to persuade her to join a coalition.

”I have done everything possible to achieve unity … but to my great regret, I faced categorical rejection from Mrs Livni,” the leader of the right-wing Likud party said.

Minutes earlier, Livni had said the the meeting ”concluded without agreement on key issues”.

”We will be a responsible opposition,” she told media after the meeting in Tel Aviv, the second such talks since the February 10 elections.

Livni has argued that Netanyahu, a former prime minister, would block any chance of a peace deal with the Palestinians.

”Netanyahu does not believe in the peace process and is prisoner of the right-wing’s traditional vision,” she said in an interview with the Maariv newspaper.

”Under these circumstances the best option is to serve the people from the opposition benches,” she said.

But Netanyahu reportedly told visiting United States Middle East envoy George Mitchell behind closed doors on Thursday that he intends to advance peace negotiations with the Palestinians and would respect commitments made by previous governments.

Maariv said before the talks that Livni would tell Netanyahu: ”I want you to commit yourself publicly, before the people and [US President Barack] Obama, to the principle of two states for two peoples.”

The Likud leader ”will shrink into his seat”, the daily said. ”He understands that if he comes out with such a declaration at this time, his natural partners on the right will grumble, mutter something about betrayal and leave.”

The Ynet News site quoted a Netanyahu aide as saying Likud would not accept the ”two states for two people” formula.

Netanyahu formed a right-wing government when he became Israel’s youngest prime minister in 1996. It fell apart three years later when small far-right parties quit in protest over deals he struck with the Palestinians under US pressure.

This time around, he clearly favoured a broad-based coalition, which would be more stable and have more credibility with the international community.

”Before and after the elections I promised to act for a unity government and I was will to make important concessions,” he said, adding he was willing to give Kadima the foreign affairs, defence and finance portfolios.

With 27 of Parliament’s 120 seats, Likud actually won one seat less than Kadima, but Netanyahu was tasked with forming the next Cabinet as he stands a better chance of cobbling together a coalition by an early April deadline.

The failure of his talks with Livni is bound to fuel concern among Palestinians and the international community. With a right-wing coalition now looking to be a probability, there are fears it would torpedo a Middle East peace process that is already in virtual limbo.

While he was prime minister Netanyahu agreed to hand over control of parts of the West Bank city of Hebron to the Palestinians, but he also put the brakes on the peace process, in part by authorising an expansion of Jewish settlements in the territory. — Sapa-AFP

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