- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2009

From combined dispatches

JERUSALEM | Hard-line leader Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday accepted a mandate to form Israel’s next government and immediately called for a broad, national unity coalition with centrist and left-wing partners.

Such a coalition might create a stable, middle-of-the-road government immune to the sort of pressure from fringe parties that has hamstrung previous Israeli administrations.

But there was no sign that his rivals would accept, and Mr. Netanyahu may have no alternative but an alliance with far-right and ultra-religious parties, which could tie his hands on trying to make peace with the Palestinians and tighten fiscal discipline.

Mr. Netanyahu, 59, leads the hawkish Likud party. He was prime minister in the late 1990s and now has six weeks to put together a coalition for a second turn at the helm. Likud more than doubled its seats in the Feb. 10 election in which the security of the Jewish state was the paramount issue, after a 2006 conflict with Hezbollah Islamists in Lebanon and a war with Islamist Palestinian Hamas in Gaza last month.

But there was no clear winner.

With 27 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Mr. Netanyahu ended up one seat behind the centrist Kadima party of Tzipi Livni, the dominant partner in the outgoing coalition.

The electorate’s rightward drift, however, gave him a better chance of achieving a majority with like-minded parties.

But his nomination by President Shimon Peres on Friday was a break with Israeli tradition, which has always given a governing mandate to the leader of the first-placed party after elections.

Mr. Netanyahu urged his opponents to close ranks.

“I call on Kadima Chairwoman Tzipi Livni and Labor Party Chairman Ehud Barak, and I say to them: Let’s unite to secure the future of the State of Israel.”

Mrs. Livni, 50, who led Israeli negotiators in a year of peace talks with the Palestinians, agreed to meet with Mr. 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,” Mrs. Livni said.

The center-left Labor Party, like Kadima, champions the establishment of a Palestinian state, and Mr. Barak has said he would take Labor into the opposition.

While Mrs. 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.

Mr. Lieberman, whose party came third in the election with 15 seats, 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.

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