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Middle East

Netanyahu ahead in race to form coalition

Latest update : 2009-02-15

Right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu has a better chance of securing a coalition in the Israeli parliament, observers say, despite official election results showing that rival centrist Kadima narrowly emerged as the top party in parliament.

AFP - Hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu is running ahead of centrist Tzipi Livni in the fight to take the Israeli helm after an election whose shift to the right raised concerns over the future of peace talks, observers said on Thursday.

"The chances of Livni forming a government amount to zero," said Avraham Diskin, a political scientist with Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a sentiment echoed in much of the media following Tuesday's election.

The final tally after military and overseas were counted confirmed on Thursday that Livni's Kadima narrowly emerged as the top party with 28 seats.

However, that was far short of the 61 MPs the foreign minister would need in the 120-member parliament to form a governing coalition.

Former premier Netanyahu's Likud party was confirmed as having garnered 27 seats, which means he would also have to engage in some political horse-trading if he is to regain his old job.

The majority of the remaining seats went to other parties of the right, with the far-right Yisrael Beitenu of Avidgor Lieberman taking 15.

The Labour party slipped into fourth place with 13 seats.

Both Livni and Netanyahu had claimed victory immediately after the cliffhanger election, leaving Israel potentially facing weeks of political turmoil as they scramble for support from the smaller parties.

New kingmaker Lieberman has added a dose of suspense to the political haggling by refusing to say whom he will support.

The Palestinians have voiced fears for peace talks after the vote, which came three weeks after a devastating Israeli offensive on Hamas-run Gaza, while Arab media said the ballot was a victory for extremists like Lieberman.

"It is obvious that Israel will not get a government capable of continuing the negotiations," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top aide of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

Despite his higher chances of becoming the next prime minister, Netanyahu is walking a political tightrope, analysts say.

He is widely believed to want a unity government including Kadima to give him a solid majority in parliament and avoid the risk of a short-term government, which analysts warn would be the case with a strictly right-wing coalition.

A narrow right-wing government would include parties opposed to dismantling settlements and territorial concessions in peace talks and would put Netanyahu at odds with the administration of US President Barack Obama, analysts say.

"Netanyahu would very much like Kadima to join his government and he would be willing to give a lot for this to happen," wrote Maariv.

But Livni has insisted that as the winner of the election, she should lead a unity government.

So Netanyahu is planning to approach Kadima via a circuitous route.

"He believes that if he can convince parties representing 61 MPs to recommend him to the president, Kadima will also join him: Its members are not cut out to sit in the opposition," said the mass-selling Yediot Aharonot.

"When they join, he will be able to throw out the extreme factions and form the same government that he intended to form from the beginning," it said.

But Yaacov Katz, head of the National Union party which represents settlers and will have four seats in parliament, insisted he would not fall for the bluff.

"If we have the slightest doubt that as a result of our recommendation Bibi will be sitting in the next government with Tzipi Livni and negotiating Annapolis, (the creation of) another Arab country between the sea and the Jordan River, giving away parts of the Land of Israel and dealing improperly with the outposts, the chances we'll recommend him are close to nothing," Katz told the Ynet news website.

Another solution would be a rotation in a unity government, a scenario in Israel in 1984 when the two main parties shared the prime minister's post.

Netanyahu has ruled out such an option, however.

The EU presidency meanwhile congratulated "the winners of Israel's general election."

It said in a statement the European Union "looks forward to working with the new Israeli administration to achieve the most important goal of all: a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

It expressed hope the government would honour commitments made at the November 2007 conference in Annapolis, Maryland, that relaunched the peace process "and refrain from measures rendering a two-state solution impossible."

Date created : 2009-02-13