AFP - Hawkish Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday gained pole position to become Israel's next prime minister as ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman backed his bid to form a government.
The support from Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party means Netanyahu, a former premier popularly known as Bibi, can count on the support of 65 of the 120 members of parliament, army radio said.
"We have two proposals. The first: we recommend Bibi Netanyahu, but (second) only as part of a wider government," Lieberman told President Shimon Peres who was meeting with parliamentary factions before deciding who will be tasked with forming a governing coalition.
"We are not talking of a government with a restricted majority. To govern the country, we need a government with the three largest parties, Likud, Kadima and Yisrael Beitenu," said Lieberman, a Soviet immigrant whose party displaced Labour as the third largest parliamentary faction in last week's elections.
"Those that want to join (the coalition) can do so later," Lieberman added.
Peres held talks with Likud and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's governing Kadima party on Wednesday and was holding talks with the other 10 factions on Thursday.
"Netanyahu will be prime minister, but it will be a Bibi-Livni government," said Lieberman.
"Bibi must get used to the idea it will be a broad government," he told Peres.
Kadima had suggested a power-sharing deal with Netanyahu similar to the one Israel had in 1984 after another close ballot, when the two top parties each held the post of prime minister for two years.
But Lieberman said that "Livni must give up the idea of a rotation as such a solution would cause instability."
Netanyahu has also rejected the rotating premiership option and made it clear he favours a broad coalition including Kadima, rather than an alliance with parties to the right of his own.
Kadima won 28 seats in the February 10 election, just one more than Likud, but has far fewer potential coalition allies than its right-wing rival.
Both Kadima and Likud have been courting other factions in a bid to obtain the majority support needed to form a government coalition.
Right-wing parties made dramatic gains overall in the election, which was held in the wake of Israel's deadly 22-day offensive on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and was dominated by security concerns.
Under Israeli law, the task of forming a government does not automatically go to the party that garnered the most votes but to the one most likely to be able to form a majority coalition.
Peres was to announce his decision on Sunday or Monday, his spokeswoman Ayelet Frish said.
The Kadima delegation on Wednesday pressed the president, who is himself drawn from Livni's centrist faction, to give the party the first go at attempting to forge a governing coalition, but Likud insisted that Netanyahu was better placed to lead a new government.
The overall shift to the right in the election has raised concern over the future of already hobbled peace talks with the Palestinians.
The talks have remained stalled as Livni and Netanyahu bid separately to form a workable governing coalition.
The person tasked by Peres to form a government will have 28 days to put together a coalition. If necessary Peres can extend the deadline by 14 days.
The election was called after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert handed in his resignation in September after being questioned by police over a series of graft scandals. He has stayed on as acting premier.