Israeli foreign minister seeks to form coalition government

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 20-Sep-08 | Author: Ethan Bronner| Source: International Herald Tribune

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni shakes hands with young Kadima party supporters during rally in Tel Aviv.

JERUSALEM: Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Thursday she would begin negotiations to form a new coalition government after narrowly winning a vote to replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as the leader of the centrist Kadima Party.

She was scheduled to meet with three rival candidates she defeated in the party election on Wednesday, the Israeli press reported. She also telephoned the Labor Party leader, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a partner in the current coalition, to discuss cooperation in a new government, according to Haaretz.

In the vote, Livni edged past her main rival, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, by a little more than a percentage point, according to official results issued Thursday.

Mofaz's supporters called for a recount, but Israeli media reported that he had called Livni to congratulate her on her victory and had rejected a legal adviser's proposal that he challenge the results.

When the polls closed at 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, exit surveys indicated that Livni had swept to victory with a 10-point lead. But as counting of the nearly 40,000 votes progressed, the gap narrowed sharply. Before dawn, officials announced that Livni had won by 431 votes, according to Israel Radio.

Speaking outside her home in Tel Aviv, Reuters reported, Livni vowed to start work immediately on forming a new coalition that would let her succeed Olmert as prime minister.

The differences between Livni, a diplomatic 50-year-old lawyer who has led peace talks with the Palestinians, and Mofaz, a hawkish 59-year-old former general who has derided those talks, appear substantial.

If Livni fends off any possible legal challenge and succeeds within 42 days in putting together a majority coalition in the 120-member Parliament, she will be the first woman to lead this country since Golda Meir in 1974. If not, the country will hold general elections three months later. Polls show that the rightist Likud party of Benjamin Netanyahu would be a very strong contender in such a race.

Olmert, the object of several investigations alleging that he took money illegally while mayor of Jerusalem and industry minister, called Livni to congratulate her and promise his full cooperation.

He has agreed to step down once his replacement is chosen so that the police inquiry does not further interfere with matters of state, but he is likely to remain in a caretaker capacity until a government is formed.

Coalition options are complex, and the small victory clearly could be seen as a reduced mandate to form a government without general elections.

The current government headed by Kadima includes the leftist Labor Party, the Pensioners Party and Shas, an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party. There have been sharp tensions between Livni and Barak, but he seems likely to join her in order to avoid elections that could carry Likud to power.

The Pensioners should pose no difficulties but Shas is more naturally inclined toward Likud, which advocates a tougher approach toward the Palestinians, the ending of peace talks with the Syrians and a solemn vow never to give up sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem to the Palestinians, who seek its eastern part as their capital.

Shas, whose members usually have large families, also wants a big increase in child welfare allowances, which Livni says she opposes.

She could turn to Meretz, which is to the left of Labor. She has also said she would try to attract Likud. But Netanyahu, the Likud leader, said Wednesday that joining Kadima in a government would be tantamount to joining the board of Lehman Brothers.

He has argued that Kadima, formed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in late 2005 less than two months before he fell into a stroke-induced coma, has no future because it lacks vision, identity and popular support.

Other Likud leaders said it was scandalous that a primary election of a small party like Kadima - 70,000 members were eligible to vote and about half did so - could determine the country's next prime minister and policy direction.

Gilad Erdan, a member of Parliament from Likud, said on television that the roughly 20,000 people who elected the head of Kadima could barely fill a soccer stadium, and added: "I have no doubt that a new government would be legal, but it would not be morally legitimate. This is not the government the people have elected; this is not the agenda that was put up to elections."

Sharon, who took Livni and Olmert with him when he left Likud three years ago to form Kadima, promised to withdraw unilaterally from parts of the West Bank to preserve Israel as a Jewish democratic state, saying negotiations with the Palestinians were useless because there was no one on the Palestinian side with whom to negotiate.

But the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza several months earlier quickly turned sour, leading to the Hamas takeover of the area and an increase in rocket fire at Israel. So the current government has engaged in extended talks with the Palestinian Authority and has also begun serious, albeit indirect, talks with Syria over peace in exchange for a return of the Golan Heights.

In other words, Kadima has edged closer to the position of Labor, making it more left-of-center than centrist at a time when the national mood may be more hawkish.

Mofaz, who was born in Iran, has an image as a hawk whose views do not appear very different from those of Likud. But he said he would be eager to make peace with the Palestinians and has the military background to protect Israel as it faces major geopolitical and strategic challenges.

Livni, who is married to a businessman and has raised two sons, is well liked but not loved by Israelis who consider her something of a gray pragmatist. Her associates sometimes complain that she is slow to make decisions.

Isabel Kershner contributed reporting from Jerusalem and Graham Bowley from New York.