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Wed 25 Feb 2009 09:34 PM

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Israel's Likud woos far-right parties

Benjamin Netanyahu still hoping for broad-based coalition gov't, despite opening talks with ultra-nationalists.

Israel's Likud launched talks with far-right parties on Wednesday, although hawkish leader Benjamin Netanyahu still hoped to form a broad-based government more acceptable to the international community.Likud negotiators kicked off formal talks at an afternoon meeting with the Yisrael Beitenu party of ultra-nationalist MP Avigdor Lieberman, followed by negotiations with the religious Shas and United Torah Judaism.

They were to meet the pro-settler Jewish Home and National Union parties on Thursday.

Netanyahu has made it clear he would rather form a broad coalition that includes the centrist Kadima party of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and the Labour party of Defence Minister Ehud Barak.

So far, both Kadima and Labour have rejected Netanyahu's advances, but the Likud leader planned to meet Livni again on Friday in a last-ditch effort to convince her to change her mind.

Some Kadima members also remained hopeful a deal might be possible.

"Israel's citizens did not give us 28 seats in order for us to sit in the opposition. But let it be clear, if we do not reach an agreement on government guidelines in the end, we will go to the opposition," the Maariv daily quoted Kadima number two Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz as saying.

Netanyahu is evidently keen to avert a repeat of the situation in 1999, when his government collapsed following the defection of far-right parties that accused him of making concessions to the Palestinians.

The prospect of a right-wing government has stirred fears that the already hobbled Middle East peace talks, relaunched to great fanfare at a US sponsored conference in November 2007, could collapse altogether.

Suggestions that Lieberman might get the foreign minister's job are certain to cause increased concern.

An immigrant from the Soviet Union and a former night club bouncer, Lieberman is known for his hardline positions and vitriolic diatribes against Arab-Israelis, with critics accusing him of being a "fascist" and a "racist."

Lieberman was evidently unfazed.

"I have met with many foreign ministers. The truth? They're not used to my style. But there is no need to worry - every country in the world will be glad to receive me as foreign minister, including Egypt," he told the Yediot Aharonot newspaper.

Last year, Lieberman was quoted as saying Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could "go to hell" if he did not want to visit Israel. The two countries have been at peace since signing a landmark treaty in 1979.

Lieberman is also reportedly eyeing the finance ministry, but that could be problematic as he is under police investigation for graft and money laundering.

Livni has insisted she would not join a coalition "that would be against our ideals," adding that the country needs "a government based on a two-state solution" for Palestinians and Israel.

But immediately following the Tuesday swearing-in of the new Knesset, Israel's parliament, Kadima introduced a bill that could complicate the coalition talks.

The bill would recognise civil unions as an alternative to religious marriage, a bone of contention between the secular Yisrael Beitenu and the religious parties Netanyahu is also courting.

After the talks with Likud, Yisrael Beitenu MP Stas Meseznikov said "progress was made on the issues of the battle against terrorism and aid to new immigrants, but not on civil union."

While Likud, with 27 MPs, has one seat less than Kadima, Netanyahu emerged from the February 10 elections as the only one deemed able to rally sufficient support to form a government coalition.

Netanyahu can count on the support of 65 of the 120 members of parliament, if he relies on parties to the right of his own as well as religious factions.

An opinion poll out on Wednesday showed 52 percent percent of Israelis favoured Kadima in a Likud-led coalition, either with Labour (36 percent) or with Yisrael Beitenu (16 percent.)

Netanyahu has less than a month to put together a coalition. If necessary President Shimon Peres can extend the deadline by 14 days.

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