Livni: I'll Fight on to Form Coalition, Despite Poor Odds

A day of coalition talks makes clear Netanyahu has considerable advantage in forging right-wing government.

Despite her slim chance of being able to form a government, Kadima leader Tzipi Livni on Wednesday pledged to make every effort to do so "for my voters." However, she said she would not pay "an exorbitant price" for other parties agreement to join her.

Livni, who met Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman in Jerusalem Wednesday in a bid to build a coalition, said she could offer Lieberman support for two issues that are crucial to him: passing a law that would enable couples barred from religious Jewish marriage to marry in a civil union, and making changes to the system of government.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who commands a right wing ultra-Orthodox bloc of 65 Knesset members, cannot support either issue due to opposition from the Haredi parties.

"I can also put together a coalition that is united around the peace process. Netanyahu doesn't want that, and couldn't do it even if he did, with his right wing partners," Livni said.

A day of coalition talks made it clear to Livni that Netanyahu had a considerable advantage in forming a government. However, she said she was determined to try, mainly for the sake of all the left-wing voters who abandoned Labor and Meretz and voted for her.

Livni said that if she fails to put together a coalition within a few days she will have to decide between joining the opposition or a government headed by Netanyahu.

If Lieberman recommends Livni to President Shimon Peres as his choice for forming the government she would immediately lose her recommendation from Labor and Meretz, political sources said.

Six months ago, with a bloc of 70 center and left-wing MKs, Livni failed to form a coalition. Now, say the sources, she will not be able to do so now with a 44-strong bloc consisting of Kadima, Meretz and Labor, or a hypothetical 43-strong bloc of Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu, the sources said.

According to the sources, Livni and Netanyahu are playing a complex game - she is unwilling to give up and as long as she digs in her heels he is forced to pay more to his "natural" coalition partners. However, if he refuses to pay them and fails to put together a narrow coalition then Livni won't join him.

In addition, the more Netanyahu promises to the ultra-Orthodox Shas and far right Habayit Hayehudi and National Union, the harder it will be for him to add Kadima to the coalition and the harder it will be for Kadima to join him.

Kadima figures on Wednesday held preliminary talks with Likud figures to discuss the terms of a possible partnership.

Netanyahu may offer Kadima the foreign (Tzipi Livni) and defense (Shaul Mofaz) portfolios. Prime minister Ariel Sharon offered Labor's Shimon Peres and Benjamin Ben Eliezer these portfolios in 2001, immediately after he was elected prime minister.

But before doing so Netanyahu must deal with the demands of Lieberman, Shas and United Torah Judaism in exchange for joining his coalition.

Shas is demanding the Housing and Construction portfolio, including the Israel Lands Administration, which is in charge of all public construction in Israel. Some sources said Netanyahu has already promised the ILA to Shas chair Eli Yishai, although Shas sources have denied this.

Sources close to Labor leader Ehud Barak said Wednesday that he would take his party into the opposition after its crushing election defeat.

The announcement came after almost all of Labor's MKs made it clear to Barak that they would not go with him to Netanyahu's government. Even the three outgoing ministers Benjamin Ben Eliezer, Isaac Herzog and Shalom Simhon supported going to the opposition.

Herzog said Wednesday that he would run in the party's primary in about a year's time. MKs Ophir Pines-Paz, Amir Peretz and Avishay Braverman also intend to run for party leader. MK Shelly Yachimovich and Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini could also join the fray, party sources said.

Meretz is waiting for the final vote count in the hope that Zehava Gal-On (number four on the Knesset list) will get into the Knesset.

Gal-on, an outstanding parliamentarian and a staunch human rights fighter, volunteered two months ago to give her third place slot, which she won in the party's primary, to the new candidate Nitzan Horowitz. Meretz's plunge to three Knesset seats left her out.

Horowitz, formerly Channel 10's foreign correspondent, was asked by former colleagues Yaron London and Mordechai Kirschenbaum on Wednesday whether he would quit for Gal-On. He said he would not "deal with personal issues."

If Horowitz doesn't quit for Gal-On, several people in Meretz will demand party leader Haim Oron's resignation, Meretz sources said. He is the man behind the flop called The New Movement Meretz and foisted the new candidates onto his party leadership.

It would be immoral, improper and outrageous for Oron to continue serving as Meretz leader in the Knesset, while Gal-on remains out of it, the sources said.