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Livni's coalition bid ends in failure

Israel's foreign minister ends efforts to form a coalition government and calls for an early national election.

Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, speaks to the media after her meeting with Israel's president, Shimon Peres, in Jerusalem on Oct 26 2008.
Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, speaks to the media after her meeting with Israel's president, Shimon Peres, in Jerusalem on Oct 26 2008.

TEL AVIV // Israel is gearing up for elections. Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister and the designated successor to Ehud Olmert, the scandal-hit departing prime minister, called for an early national election today after she failed to patch together a new governing coalition. Ms Livni made the recommendation to Shimon Peres, Israel's president, three days after a key partner in the coalition talks - the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party - announced it would not join her Kadima Party in a new government. Ms Livni's decision will most likely lead Israel towards elections in January or February, more than a year ahead of schedule. "I told the president that under the current circumstances, elections need to take place without delay as fast as possible," Ms Livni told journalists after meeting with Mr Peres today. She said she halted the coalition talks because of "impossible demands made by future partners on economic, diplomatic and political issues". New elections, the first since March 2006, will decide not only who will become Israel's new leader, but also the fate of talks with the Palestinians, which are already faltering. That is mainly because analysts expect Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of the right-wing Likud Party and a former Israeli prime minister, to emerge victorious. Mr Netanyahu, who opposes Israel's making wide-ranging territorial concessions, may resist continuing the US-backed talks that were kick-started at the Annapolis summit last November. Ms Livni is Israel's chief negotiator in those talks. With her coalition-building efforts defeated, Ms Livni - who just last month won the leadership of Israel's ruling Kadima Party by a paper-thin margin - appeared to have lost some of her lustre. In a column in the Haaretz daily newspaper titled "Is she a loser?", Aluf Ben wrote that "Livni took it upon herself to create a coalition, and didn't succeed. Her clean and winning image, which was cracked a bit after her narrow victory over Shaul Mofaz in the primaries, has suffered another unpleasant blow." Indeed, the woman slated to become Israel's first female prime minister since Golda Meir in the 1970s will have to work much harder now to earn that title. Ms Livni began negotiations with other parliamentary parties in late September after taking over the helm of Kadima from Mr Olmert, the veteran politician who resigned as he faces possible criminal indictment in a corruption investigation. In ensuing days, she sealed a clear pact only with the Labor Party, the second-biggest in parliament after Kadima. But Ehud Barak, the Labor leader and defence minister, had pushed Ms Livni to draw more partners because he worried that a coalition with a narrow parliamentary majority would not last and lead to elections in which Mr Netanyahu would win. A week ago, Ms Livni obtained a two-week extension to continue the talks. But her bid suffered a huge setback on Friday. Shas, whose 12 seats were needed by Ms Livni to achieve a comfortable majority in the 120-member parliament, said it would not join her coalition. Shas, whose voters are typically from poor and large families, has demanded that Ms Livni's government provide it with some 1.5 billion shekels (Dh1.4bn) in funds for child allowances. The party, which opposes a division of Jerusalem, has also insisted Israel keep the issue of the holy city off the negotiation table in talks with the Palestinians. Following Shas's announcement, Ms Livni failed to garner the support of another ultra-Orthodox party, Yehadut Hatorah, and make up for the loss of Shas. Israel's president is now likely to set in motion a process that will lead to elections. Observers said Mr Netanyahu gained the most from Ms Livni's failure. Mr Netanyahu - whose Likud Party is looking for a comeback after losing seats in the 2006 election - worked actively and quietly in recent weeks to seal secret agreements with Shas, Labor and other parties, they said. "As of today, Bibi is the winner and the favourite for a victory in the election," commentator Yossi Verter wrote in Haaretz, referring to Mr Netanyahu's nickname. Still, Mr Netanyahu is not the only winner. Mr Olmert, desperate to leave a legacy as a peacemaker before he departs politics, will now have a few more months to pursue the talks he launched with the Palestinians almost a year ago as well as to restart postponed negotiations with Syria. But yesterday, Mr Olmert was reminded of the hurdles he or any other Israeli leader would face in trying to reach a settlement with the Palestinians on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Israeli police arrested at least four extremist Jewish settlers who took part in a rampage on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Hebron after Israeli troops dismantled an illegal settlement outpost. Police and the military said that the settlers attacked and threatened their forces, vandalised a nearby Muslim cemetery and slashed the tyres of Palestinian cars. The attack drew a sharp rebuke from Mr Olmert, partly because of settlers' remarks broadcast by Israel Army Radio earlier that included promoting revenge attacks against soldiers. "We will not show any tolerance concerning such comments and concerning such actions," Mr Olmert told his cabinet during its weekly session. Still, with the threat of more violence should there be further attempts to evacuate settlements, Israel's newly launched election season has likely not seen the last of such clashes. vbekker@thenational.ae