The Israeli prime minister-designate and head of the ruling Kadima Party asks Shimon Peres, the president, for an extension of the time allotted to form a government.
Livni seeks more time to form coalition
JERUSALEM // Tzipi Livni, the Israeli prime minister-designate and head of the ruling Kadima Party, yesterday asked Shimon Peres, the president, for an extension to the three-week period she had been allotted to form a government.
The move was widely expected. Israel is coming out of an extended holiday period and parliament is not reconvening until Monday, the day Ms Livni has said she intends to present a government. She has until Nov 3 to do so and if she fails, Mr Peres can ask someone else to try or call early elections. The longer it takes Ms Livni to form a government the less time is left for the outgoing US administration to attempt one final push to reach some kind of agreement between Palestinians and Israelis under the Annapolis process. Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, indicated last week that Washington was ready to make such an effort once Ms Livni has formed a government and intimated that negotiations had progressed further than was generally understood.
"Some of the things that Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert has said demonstrate that Israelis know that the time has come for an agreement. The parties have already made a lot of progress," Ms Rice said in an interview with the Al Arabiya network on Oct 16. "The fact is, this is the most robust negotiating process that they've had, perhaps ever." Having already initialled an agreement with the left-wing Labor Party, Ms Livni's main stumbling block has come in negotiations with the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, crucial for coalition stability. Ms Livni could form a government without Shas, but it would barely muster a parliamentary majority and could leave her at the mercy of small parties outside the coalition.
Shas, however, has dug its heels in over child benefits, demanding that the new government budget for allowances at a cost of one billion shekels (Dh1.8bn). Ms Livni has offered the party a package worth 600 million shekels, but Shas has so far refused. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, its spiritual leader, is reported to have instructed Eli Yishai, the party head, not to compromise. "Shas is the biggest bloc that will get a coalition government over 61 seats [the minimum for a majority government] ? I think the odds are higher that Shas will join, but the alternative is to go to elections," said Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv.
With opinion polls in Israel indicating that the biggest winner of early elections would be Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of the right wing Likud Party, this is a scenario both Ms Livni and Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader, are keen to avoid. A right-wing Israeli government will almost certainly spell the end of the peace process, such as it is. Even with Shas in the coalition, talks with the Palestinians are likely to suffer, however. The party remains adamant that it will leave any coalition that engages in negotiations over the status of Jerusalem, thus potentially undermining any efforts in that direction by Ms Livni.
"The leadership of Shas is more pragmatic, but it has to take a hard line because its [electoral] base is the more religiously informed among right-wing voters," said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst. Nevertheless, Shas is also unwilling to lose its position in government, Mr Alpher said, and is likely to eventually accept a suitable compromise. Historically, he said, Shas had been "willing to join any government that satisfies its material needs.
"The fact is, Olmert discussed Jerusalem and Shas didn't leave the coalition. He gave them the face-saving device of keeping those talks secret and Livni can do the same". One possible option for Ms Livni to sweeten the deal for Shas is to delegate the Palestinian track to lower down her list of priorities. Ms Livni has said that the peace process remains her top priority, but should she choose to put it on the back burner, there is little likelihood of any concerted pressure from Washington, Ms Rice's statements notwithstanding, where the outgoing administration has its hands full. A new administration will take time to settle in, while, with the ceasefire with Hamas holding, there is no overriding security issue pressing her domestic agenda.
"The peace process is a secondary issue," Mr Steinberg said. "A lot of us are quite sceptical that this peace process is anything but a photo opportunity for George Bush [the US president], Condoleezza Rice, Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas [the Palestinian president], all four of whom are not going to be in office much longer." With or without Shas, Ms Livni remains likely to form the next government. The inclusion of Shas, however, will determine how long that government will last, and how free Ms Livni will be to act with regard to the peace process.
Expectations among Palestinians are in any case low. "It doesn't matter much who leads Israel," said Ali Jarbawi, a Palestinian analyst. "The Israeli position remains far from the minimum Palestinian demands, negotiations or no negotiations." email@example.com