Netanyahu recruits Shas party for Israel coalition

Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud signed a coalition deal with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party on Monday, bringing the right-wing leader closer to forming a government.

Shas lined up alongside the Yisrael Beitenu party led by ultra nationalist Avigdor Lieberman as partners in Netanyahu’s fledgling coalition. Likud secured a deal with Yisrael Beitenu earlier this month.

“Now we have 53 lawmakers tied into coalition agreements headed by Benjamin Netanyahu and in the coming days we will work to broaden the parliamentary base for support for his government,” said Likud legislator Gideon Saar.

As a next stage, Netanyahu is trying to recruit the centre-left Labour party led by Defence Minister Ehud Barak. It planned to open coalition talks later on Monday.

If Labour refuses to join, Netanyahu could be left with the option of forming a narrow right-wing coalition and giving a prominent role to Lieberman, whom he has promised to appoint foreign minister.

This could put Netanyahu on a collision course with the administration of United States President Barack Obama, who has pledged to pursue peace talks leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Netanyahu, who clashed repeatedly with the Clinton administration while serving as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, has proposed shifting the focus of US-backed peace talks from territorial to economic issues, a move Palestinians reject.

Shas, which captured 11 seats in the 120-member parliament in a February 10 election, portrays itself as an advocate for Israel’s poor.

Under the coalition agreement, Shas, a partner in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s outgoing government, was promised an increase in child welfare payments, party officials said.

Peace process
Yaakov Margi, a Shas legislator, said after the agreement was signed that the party would not reject peace moves with the Palestinians out of hand.

“We are in favour of examining every diplomatic issue on its merits.
We never represented ourselves as being opposed to the peace process,” Margi told Israel Radio.

Netanyahu faces an April 3 deadline to complete the formation of a government after being given the task last month by President Shimon Peres.

Barak said he would ask his party’s executive for a mandate to join Netanyahu’s government when it meets on Tuesday.

He faces strong opposition from party rivals who say joining the government would sound the death knell for Labour, once the dominant force in Israeli politics and now, with 13 seats, the fourth-largest party in Parliament.

In last month’s election, Likud won 27 seats and the centrist Kadima of outgoing Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni polled 28, while Yisrael Beitenu won 15.

Livni has demanded Netanyahu commit to US-backed talks with Palestinians for a two-state solution as a condition for joining a government. She also wants a power-sharing arrangement, a call so far rejected by Netanyahu.—Reuters

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