Netanyahu urges moderates to join broad government

Friday, February 20, 2009
By AMY TEIBEL, Associated Press Writer

JERUSALEM —  Benjamin Netanyahu appealed to his moderate rivals Friday to join a unity government _ a tricky alliance that would let the hawkish Israeli leader avoid relying on an unstable grouping of right-wingers almost sure to collide with the Obama administration and each other.

"I call on the members of all the factions ... to set politics aside and put the good of the nation at the center," Netanyahu said during a brief ceremony after President Shimon Peres tapped him to try to put together Israel's next governing coalition.

Although the election gave Netanyahu's Likud Party and other right-wing groups a majority in parliament, the prime minister-designate has a delicate task in forming a government.

Bringing moderates into a coalition would dilute the power of the nationalists who criticized the peace talks pursued by the outgoing centrist government. Netanyahu opposes sweeping territorial concessions to the Palestinians and wants to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

However, the centrist factions would produce a more stable government with international support than Netanyahu would probably get with a narrow coalition of conservatives who have their own disagreements. They have far different agendas when it comes to domestic issues, such as whether Israel should allow civil marriages.

In his appeal for a unity government, Netanyahu singled out "first and foremost" Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, head of the governing Kadima Party, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, chairman of the Labor Party.

Livni is the key to a broad-based government and she indicated she might be willing to come on board. But because Kadima remained Israel's largest party in the Feb. 10 election, although far short of a majority, she would certainly demand a high price: sharing the premiership with Netanyahu, who doesn't want to serve only half a term.

Livni, who led Israeli negotiators in a year of peace talks with the Palestinians, agreed to meet with Netanyahu on Sunday to discuss his unity overture. Earlier Friday, she said she would not join a hard-line government and was prepared to sit in the opposition "if necessary."

"I will not be able to serve as a cover for a lack of direction. I want to lead Israel in a way I believe in, to advance a peace process based on two states for two peoples," Livni said.

The Palestinian Authority's peace negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said any Israeli government that did not accept the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and continued settlement building "will not be a partner."

"We will not be in the negotiations for the sake of negotiations," Erekat said.

Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for the Islamic militant Hamas group that rules the Gaza Strip, said Netanyahu's appointment "indicates that there is no possibility for security and stability in the region in the coming period." Hamas is not party to peace talks and is shunned by Israel and Western powers as a terrorist organization.

The center-left Labor Party, like Kadima, champions the establishment of a Palestinian state, and Barak has said he would take Labor into the opposition. Should he change his mind, he would want to remain defense minister, a demand Netanyahu would be expected to meet.

While Livni insists on the need for peace efforts, she does not object to joining a government that includes Avigdor Lieberman's ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu Party, a Netanyahu ally that wants 1 million Israeli Arabs to sign a loyalty oath to the Jewish state.

Lieberman has said he would not object to joining a government with Kadima. His secularist agenda is at odds with religious nationalist parties and gives him common ground with moderates.

Many Labor lawmakers, however, say they would not serve in a coalition with Yisrael Beiteinu because of its extremist views.

In his speech, Netanyahu did not mention by name either Yisrael Beiteinu or right-wing religious factions whose support persuaded Peres to choose Netanyahu to form the government even though Kadima led the election by winning 28 of parliament's 120 seats.

Likud, which got 27 seats, is in a better position to put together a coalition because Lieberman's party won 15 and right-wing religious parties combined took 23 _ for a 65-seat bloc in parliament.

While Netanyahu owes the hard-liners his second crack at the premiership _ he held the job in the late 1990s for a turbulent three years _ forming a narrow coalition of nationalist and religious parties would present him an array of domestic and foreign policy headaches.

Yisrael Beiteinu wants to redraw Israel's borders to place heavy concentrations of Israeli Arabs under Palestinian jurisdiction and to require those Arabs who remained to sign a loyalty oath or lose their citizenship rights.

Those positions have not drawn any criticism from the religious parties, but Lieberman angers them with his vehement opposition to the Orthodox Jewish establishment's control of key aspects of life in Israel, such as marriage. If either party bolted a right-wing coalition in a fight over social issues, the government would fall.

The nationalist and religious parties could both cause Netanyahu problems in the international arena if the U.S. were to pressure him to make territorial concessions to the Palestinians. His first government fell apart in 1999 after Washington leaned on him to grant the Palestinians control of large parts of the biblically significant West Bank town of Hebron.

The nationalist camp's commitment to expanding West Bank settlements could put Israel at loggerheads with the U.S., the Jewish state's main ally. President Barack Obama has vowed to make ending 60 years of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians a priority, and his new Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, unequivocally favors a halt to all settlement building.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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