Saturday, March 21, 2009

JERUSALEM | Israel‘s right-wing Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu was given two more weeks on Friday to form a government, allowing further time to try to balance his coalition by including the center-left Labor Party.

Israel’s Feb. 10 election gave rise to a rightist majority bloc in parliament, prompting President Shimon Peres to task Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud with forming a government within 28 days. Friday’s extension sets April 3 as his new deadline. If unmet, Mr. Peres could choose to designate someone else.

Though Mr. Netanyahu can clinch alliances with right-wing factions giving him control over most Knesset seats, he wants a broader, more stable coalition with consensus over how - or if - to pursue U.S.-sponsored peace talks with the Palestinians.

The 59-year-old former prime minister is also mindful of the global economic crisis and Israel’s preoccupation with Iran’s nuclear program, which it views as a clear threat.

“I could have presented you and the people of Israel with a government on Sunday, a good government. But I chose to ask for the extension in order to make every effort to bring about a unity government, as I promised,” Mr. Netanyahu told Mr. Peres as they met before reporters at the ceremonial president’s residence. Such dispensations are commonplace in Israeli governance, where the multitude of political parties makes coalitions inevitable. Mr. Peres, granting the request, said he “very much appreciated” Mr. Netanyahu’s plans.

Labor leader Ehud Barak, the outgoing defense minister and former military chief, has said he would ask his party’s executive for a mandate to join Mr. Netanyahu’s government. Labor was expected to vote on the motion next week.

Signing on with Likud could rescue Labor - and Mr. Barak, who is also a former prime minister - from political entropy.

Once Israel’s dominant party, Labor placed fourth in the February election, winning just 13 seats. Likud won 27 and centrist Kadima party of outgoing Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni polled 28 seats, while far-right Yisrael Beiteinu, or Israel is Our Home, party won 15.

Mrs. Livni has so far ruled out a Kadima alliance with Likud, telling her party she would not provide a “fig leaf” for an ultranationalist Cabinet that was not serious about peace talks.

Mr. Netanyahu wants diplomacy to focus on the Palestinians’ economy and security forces, rather than their demand for sovereignty. The Palestinians have rejected this approach.

Labor and Kadima back negotiations for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel captured in a 1967 war.

Israeli media said Mr. Netanyahu offered Labor five ministerial jobs, including having Mr. Barak stay on as defense minister.

But Labor faces a dilemma in that Mr. Netanyahu has pledged the job of foreign minister to Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, whose hawkish talk about the Jewish state’s Arab citizens and neighbors has stirred controversy abroad.

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