Matti Friedman
The Associated Press
March 17, 2009 - 12:00am

Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu still hopes to persuade moderates to join his government as the deadline for forming a new coalition approaches, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

Netanyahu prefers a broad coalition alongside moderate partners to his other option, a narrow and unstable coalition of hard-line parties that could find it difficult to govern and draw the displeasure of the international community by rejecting the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Netanyahu told Israel's ceremonial president that he has not given up on a partnership with moderates, despite signs that his strongest potential partner, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, remains opposed to joining the government. Livni, head of the centrist Kadima Party, says she will only serve in a government committed to seeking a final peace agreement with the Palestinians _ a demand Netanyahu rejects.

Netanyahu met President Shimon Peres late Monday to update him on his effort to form a coalition, launched after a strong showing by Netanyahu's Likud and other hard-line parties in a national election on Feb. 10. Since then, he has been negotiating with potential partners over a division of ministerial positions and the government's agenda.

The Likud captured 27 seats, meaning it needs to bring in other partners to control a majority in the 120-seat parliament. Netanyahu has until April 3 to complete the task.

Netanyahu "expressed hope for a unity government, and both Netanyahu and Peres expressed a strong desire to see that happen," Likud spokeswoman Dina Libster said.

Netanyahu can easily put together a narrow coalition of ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties. But he has said he would prefer to bring in other centrist parties to bring more stability to the government.

Netanyahu is concerned such a narrow hard-line coalition would be susceptible to unrealistic demands by the smaller partners, which could bring down the government if they're unhappy.

On Monday, Netanyahu's party initialed a coalition agreement with the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu faction, a tentative step that leaves open the possibility of changes if other parties join. Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the party, has drawn accusations of racism for a plan that would require Arab citizens of Israel to sign loyalty oaths or lose their citizenship. The coalition agreement would see Lieberman become foreign minister.

Such a government would also likely be opposed to withdrawing from West Bank land as part of a future peace deal with the Palestinians, setting Israel up for a clash with the Obama administration and alienating the sizable number of Israelis who voted for centrist parties.

Kadima and the center-left Labor Party have so far rejected Netanyahu's overtures, citing his refusal to support the creation of a Palestinian state. Livni also has demanded a "rotation" arrangement in which Netanyahu let her serve as prime minister for half of the government's four-year term, a condition Netanyahu has rejected.

Livni believes she should be prime minister since Kadima is the largest party, with 28 seats in parliament. But because of the overall strength of hard-line parties allied with Netanyahu, he was tapped by Peres to form the government and serve as Israel's next prime minister.

Netanyahu's government will replace the one headed by Ehud Olmert, who is stepping down to face a string of corruption charges.


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