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Mon 23 Feb 2009 02:22 AM

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Netanyahu meets Livni to discuss Israel coalition

Benjamin Netanyahu attempts to woo rival into his government to form broad coalition.

Israeli hawk Benjamin Netanyahu tried to woo centrist rival Tzipi Livni into his government on Sunday in a bid to form a broad coalition in the notoriously unstable world of Israeli politics.The two met in Jerusalem to discuss the possible formation of a unity government but appeared to be divided on the question of whether to immediately renew peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Livni has warned she will have nothing to do with a right-wing coalition and, at a Kadima party meeting ahead of her talks with Netanyahu, she said that to enter such an alliance would be a "fraud before the electorate."

And a right-wing government led by Netanyahu, who wants to improve the economy of the occupied West Bank before holding talks on key issues, is likely to completely halt the faltering Middle East peace process, observers warn.

Netanyahu is thought to favour a broad alliance over a right-wing coalition that would be unlikely to last a full term and would put Israel at odds with US President Barack Obama, who has vowed to vigorously pursue peace talks.

"Aware of the enormous challenges faced by the country, there is no doubt that forming a union should be our foremost goal," he told reporters.

"I expect a coalition government that will cooperate with the Obama administration," said Netanyahu, who was tasked with forming a government despite his Likud party coming second in the February 10 election.

The former prime minister planned to entice outgoing foreign minister and centrist Kadima party leader Livni with the offer of senior posts in the future government, officials and local media said.

According to local media reports, Netanyahu planned to offer Livni's party the foreign and defence portfolios, and the same number of cabinet posts as his own party.

But Livni said she would not be discussing portfolios with Netanyahu but "essential questions," and would only join a government that accepted a "vision of two states for two peoples" as a solution to the Middle East conflict.

Local media have reported, however, that she is under pressure to join the government from within her own party, which won 28 seats to Likud's 27.

The 59-year-old Netanyahu was formally charged by President Shimon Peres on Friday with forming the new government. He has up to six weeks, or April 3, to put together a coalition.

He can in theory count on the support of 65 MPs from various right-wing parties in the 120-member Knesset, but analysts say he wants to form a broader grouping that would be more stable.

Netanyahu headed a right-wing government when he became Israel's youngest prime minister in 1996, but it fell apart three years later when small far-right parties quit in protest over deals he struck with the Palestinians under US pressure.

Netanyahu had agreed to hand over control of parts of the West Bank city of Hebron to the Palestinians. But he also put the brakes on the peace process, in part by authorising an expansion of Jewish settlements in the territory.

Israel's system of proportional representation usually forces premiers to secure coalition partners among the myriad of smaller parties, resulting in governments that are notoriously unstable.

The February election was called a year ahead of time after Livni was charged with forming a cabinet following the resignation of scandal-plagued outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

But the ultra-Orthodox Shas party refused to join a Livni cabinet because of her willingness to negotiate the status of Jerusalem with the Palestinians, scuttling her first attempt to become Israel's second woman prime minister.

A right-wing Netanyahu government is likely to put Israel at odds with its main ally the United States, where Obama has vowed to pursue peace talks and has put together an experienced team to focus on the issue.

Netanyahu faces a delicate balancing act as he tries to entice Livni into his government without alienating religious and far-right parties on whom he will have to rely should Kadima go into opposition.

"He comes to this match already married," wrote the Maariv newspaper. "If he should say yes to Livni, he will lose his natural base. He cannot say yes to her. He can say 'perhaps.' Or 'We will see.' He can nod silently. He can wink."

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