Peres to Consult Parties on Prime Minister Pick

Yisrael Beiteinu chief Lieberman is expected to recommend neither Netanyahu nor Livni.

President Shimon Peres will begin consulting with all the parties on Wednesday on who should be the next prime minister, with neither Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu nor Kadima chief Tzipi Livni having a clear edge.

The main question is whom Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman will recommend - and Lieberman, who has been in Belarus for the past few days and will return only this evening, is keeping his cards close to his chest. Sources close to Netanyahu say that Lieberman will recommend neither of the two candidates. Should that happen, neither would have a majority of 61 Knesset members behind them.

Livni bases her claim to the premiership on the fact that Kadima is the largest party in the next Knesset, with one more seat than Likud. Netanyahu highlights the rightist-religious bloc's 65 seats, significantly more than the center-left bloc that Livni heads.

Though Livni was still insisting last night that she would form the next government, it appears that only 28 of the Knesset's 120 MKs - those belonging to her own party - will recommend her to Peres as the next prime minister. Both Labor and Meretz, which are Kadima's natural partners, announced that they will recommend neither candidate, due mainly to Livni's efforts to form an alliance with Lieberman, whom they oppose.

Netanyahu, in contrast, will be recommended by at least 45 MKs, from Likud (27), Shas (11), National Union (4) and Habayit Hayehudi (3). He is also trying to convince United Torah Judaism's five MKs to back him, but though UTJ says it is leaning toward him, it has so far declined to commit.

The three Arab parties have said they will recommend neither candidate.

One possibility is a rotation government in which Livni and Netanyahu alternate as prime minister. Livni has indicated that she is open to this idea, but Netanyahu opposes it. "With a rotation government it is hard to effect change," he said on Russian-language television yesterday. "If you want a change of direction, there must be a single prime minister."

Netanyahu would prefer to head a broad coalition that includes Kadima. But senior Likud officials say he has a better chance of setting up a narrow rightist-religious government, since Livni insists that unless offered a rotation, she will remain in the opposition.

Peres will consult with both Kadima and Likud this evening. Wednesday morning Peres will meet with Lieberman, who heads the Knesset's third-largest party.

Yisrael Beiteinu is normally considered part of the rightist bloc, and Lieberman is widely expected to recommend either Netanyahu or no one. However, he has recently been stressing the harmony between his party and Kadima on issues such as reforming the system of government and instituting civil marriage.

That has made both Likud and Shas fear that he may opt to ally with Kadima, mainly for the sake of reducing Shas' power or even keeping it out of the government altogether. Netanyahu has said repeatedly that he is committed to Shas - which, unlike Yisrael Beiteinu, supported him openly during the campaign.

Though Peres has eight days to decide whom to ask to form a government, a source in the President's Residence said he may announce his decision as soon as Saturday night, and no later than early next week.