TEL AVIV // The clock is ticking for Tzipi Livni. Israel's foreign minister and the newly elected leader of the ruling Kadima Party stepped up negotiations with other parliamentary parties yesterday in an effort to meet her six-week deadline on forming a government coalition.
Only if Ms Livni cobbles together a coalition in time can she avert an election and become prime minister in place of Ehud Olmert, who resigned his post this week over a corruption scandal. Just hours after Ms Livni was given the go-ahead by Shimon Peres, Israel's president, on Monday evening to construct a coalition, she was reminded of the security challenges she would face as prime minister when a Palestinian ploughed his car into a group of soldiers at a busy Jerusalem intersection, injuring at least 13 of them.
Describing the incident as a "terrorist attack", Israeli police said that Qasem Mughrabi, 19, rammed a black BMW into the Israeli group near Jerusalem's Old City before being shot to death by one of the soldiers. Police said he was a resident of the Arab neighbourhood of Jabal Mukaber in East Jerusalem, and carried out the attack because he was angry that his cousin would not marry him. Mughrabi's relatives, in an interview with Israel Radio, confirmed the incident was triggered by unrequited love, but called it a "traffic accident" and said he did not belong to any Palestinian political group.
Hamas, however, issued a statement that said: "The Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades claim the operation in Jerusalem which was a natural and legitimate response by the Palestinian people." The event marked the third time East Jerusalem Palestinians used vehicles against Israelis in the city since July, in one case killing three. It highlighted the tensions surrounding the issue of East Jerusalem, which Israel conquered in the 1967 war and later annexed, and which Palestinians want to have as their capital.
The future status of Jerusalem is a key topic in US-backed talks between Israelis - led by Ms Livni as chief negotiator - and the Palestinians. Taking advantage of the attention on Jerusalem, Mr Olmert yesterday repeated a call he has made in the past for Israel to cede some of the city's Arab neighbourhoods. Referring to demands by right-wing parties that Jerusalem should remain Israel's undivided capital, he said that "whoever talks about Jerusalem with inflated slogans needs to remember that there is no simple way to prevent" such attacks. The only deterrence, he added, is "if at the end of the day we tell the Arabs that you will live in your neighbourhoods and you won't be in ours".
Ms Livni, signalling that she will make time for talks with the Palestinians amid the coalition-building, met the top Palestinian negotiator yesterday for the first time since her election to assure him that talks will continue in coming weeks. Still, observers see little movement on those negotiations until a new government is formed. Should Ms Livni's efforts to patch together a coalition fail, Israel would probably face elections early next year in which - according to polls - the centrist Kadima may be ousted from power by the right-wing Likud Party. Mr Olmert will remain prime minister until a new government is formed.
Ms Livni appears likely to form a coalition that resembles the current one led by Kadima. It includes the traditionally leftist Labor Party, the tiny Pensioners Party and the ultra-Orthodox religious Shas. While the Pensioners said they would support her, Labor - the second-biggest parliamentary party after Kadima, and its main coalition ally - and Shas have reservations about a new partnership. For their part, Shas insist on not participating in any government willing to split Jerusalem with the Palestinians - a demand that may be difficult for Ms Livni to accept.
Labor, headed by Ehud Barak, the defence minister, is believed to be concerned about Ms Livni's sealing a coalition with Labor only to take advantage of the prestige of her premiership to call elections a few months later. Both Labor and Kadima are seeking to boost their popularity in the face of growing public support for the Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu. Labor also wants a coalition that would include Likud, a demand that some analysts say aims to position Ms Livni, Mr Barak and Mr Netanyahu on equal footing and prevent any of them from boosting their respective popularity.
Donning a sombre black skirt suit and standing next to Israel's president on Monday evening, Ms Livni seemed to want to appease Mr Barak by stressing the word "stable" four times in describing the government she plans to form, saying it would aim to last until the next scheduled election in Nov 2010. In another apparent gesture to Mr Barak, she also called for Likud to take part in a unity government.
"The voice was that of Tzipora; the messages - those of Barak," is how commentator Yossi Verter of the Haaretz daily newspaper put it, using Ms Livni's full first name. In a signal that her magic may have worked on Labor, Mr Barak rang Ms Livni after her speech to congratulate her for being tapped to build a coalition. The two were scheduled to meet last night for negotiations. But her efforts were much less successful with Likud, which appears to want to take advantage of their leader's favour in the polls and is pushing for elections. Mr Netanyahu, Likud's chief, has avoided meeting Ms Livni since her primary victory and yesterday said: "We need to allow the country to choose a new prime minister and government."