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Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni called off efforts to forge a new government yesterday and will instead recommend holding early elections, after the Shas Party backed out of coalition talks on Friday.

Her decision means that elections will probably be held in February or March. The next parliamentary poll had been scheduled for 2010.

"I'm not willing to be blackmailed, either diplomatically or in terms of the budget, and therefore, I will go to elections," Livni told Haaretz last night. "The other possibility was for me to capitulate to extortion. But a government is supposed to advance processes and represent the good of the country, not just to survive in this or that coalition. I promised to exhaust efforts to form a government, and that's what I did."

The Kadima Party chairwoman will inform President Shimon Peres of her decision today.

Shas decided to end the talks primarily because Livni refused to offer what it considered a satisfactory increase in child allowances, which had been the ultra-Orthodox party's main demand. However, it also cited objections to Livni's plan to hold diplomatic negotiations over Jerusalem.

Livni said she made Shas a "very good offer" on Thursday, but was not willing to go beyond that. "I have a responsibility, and I decided there's a limit," she said. "We'll go to elections as soon as possible. I'm not afraid of elections."

Livni informed both Labor Party Chairman Ehud Barak, with whom she had initialed but not signed a coalition agreement, and Meretz Chairman Haim Oron, with whom she was still negotiating, of her decision last night. She also informed Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik.

Livni had initially hoped that even without Shas, she would still be able to form a narrow government. Over the weekend, however, both United Torah Judaism and the Pensioners Party - at least one of which was essential for such a government - rejected the offers she had made them on Thursday, and at the same time, opposition to the idea of a narrow government swelled, both within her own party and in Labor.

She therefore called a meeting of her key advisors last night, and in an unusual move, also invited her chief rival in Kadima, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz. The participants concluded that to continue the negotiations would merely erode Livni's image and subject her to greater extortion, and that she was better off taking the initiative and portraying herself as a leader who refuses to give in to extortion.

Until Friday, Livni had been confident that she would be able to form a coalition with Shas - which was demanding an NIS 1 billion increase in child allowances - as she believed the offer she made on Thursday ought to satisfy it. She was therefore shocked when it informed her on Friday that its Council of Torah Sages had decided against joining her government.

Livni's negotiators then went to UTJ with the same offer she had made to Shas, but faction chairman MK Yaakov Litzman was adamant: UTJ, he said, would not enter the government without a clear commitment that there will be no negotiations with the Palestinians about dividing Jerusalem.

Next, they went to MK Avraham Ravitz, head of UTJ's Degel Hatorah faction, in the hope that they could split the party and get Degel's three MKs to join the government. However, that failed as well.

At the same time, talks with the Pensioners had hit a brick wall over the latter's budgetary demands, which Kadima sources said totaled some NIS 2 billion. Moreover, the party said it objected to entering a narrow government in any case.

Livni's associates charged over the weekend that Shas had never intended to join the coalition; it had simply wasted the entire country's time on pointless negotiations.

Aluf Benn contributed to this report