Sun, Oct 26, 2008 - Page 6 News List

Livni struggles to unite Israeli government

CREATIVE FORMULA So far, the country’s foreign minister only has a clear deal with the Labor Party, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who seeks a broad government


The ultra-orthodox Shas Party said on Friday it would not join a government that Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is trying to assemble. If that decision stands, it will be a major blow to her efforts to become prime minister and avoid early elections.

At the same time, Livni reached an agreement in principle with the left-wing Meretz Party to join her government and was negotiating with another ultra-orthodox party, Yahadut Hatorah. Together they would make up for the loss of Shas and give her a majority in the 120-seat parliament.

Shas, the fourth-largest party and part of the departing government, said it had failed to reach agreement with Livni over the two issues that matter most to it — increasing child allowances for large families and a promise to keep Jerusalem entirely under Israeli sovereignty and off the negotiating table with the Palestinians.

While Shas spokesmen said the decision to stay out was final, others suggested that the move was a risky negotiating tactic that could still be reversed.

“I do not see this as the end of the story with Shas,” said Otniel Schneller, a parliament member from Livni’s Kadima Party, in a telephone interview, making a point echoed by others.

“I think we can still find a creative formula for Jerusalem and bring them back,” he said.

Meanwhile Meretz, on the left, has been in talks all week with Livni.

“We decided that we are in the government and now are setting about writing the agreement,” Avshalom Vilan, a parliament member from Meretz, said by telephone. “I believe Livni will try to build a government with what she has rather than go to early elections.”

So far, Livni has a clear deal only with the Labor Party, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Barak wants as broad a government as possible because he worries that a narrow one will not last and will lead inevitably to early elections in which the opposition Likud Party, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, is ahead in the polls.

An associate of Barak said he would be willing to move forward if both Meretz and Yahadut Hatorah signed on, bringing the governing majority to 66.

“If she will have 66 members, Barak won’t be an obstacle, though he is not excited about this,” the associate said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Livni announced last week she would decide today whether to try to form a government or move toward early elections. Tomorrow is the official opening of the parliamentary session, and if she does not have a government by then, the departing prime minister Ehud Olmert, who is leaving to fight corruption charges, will make the day’s major speech, not she.

Her aides say she considers this both politically and symbolically highly undesirable.

At the same time, Livni, who has risen rapidly in Israeli politics on a reputation of honesty and lack of corruption, is losing some of her luster. Her efforts to form a government have not gone well and have shown her horse-trading over budgets and positions.

Nahum Barnea, the country’s top political columnist, wrote in Friday’s issue of Yediot Aharonot newspaper an article headlined “Tzipi in Wonderland,” in which he listed the political debate over the errors she was perceived to have committed.

They included having involved herself too personally in the negotiations, having mishandled Barak and having relied on lieutenants viewed as insufficiently seasoned.

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