March 23, 2009 / 1:38 AM / 10 years ago

Israel's Netanyahu pursues partnership with Labor

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu opened coalition talks with the center-left Labor Party on Monday, seeking an alternative to a right-wing government that could lead to friction with Washington over Middle East peace.

Israel's President Shimon Peres (L) and Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Jerusalem March 20, 2009, in this picture released by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO). REUTERS/AVI OHAYON/GPO/Handout

Negotiators from Netanyahu’s hawkish Likud party met their Labor counterparts only hours after the prime minister-designate enlisted the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Shas party as a coalition partner.

Labor is led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who faces stiff opposition within his party to an agreement with Likud.

The partnership with Shas, following a deal earlier this month with the Yisrael Beitenu party led by ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman, moved Netanyahu a step closer toward establishing a narrow, right-wing government.

Such a coalition could put Netanyahu on a collision course with U.S. President Barack Obama, who has pledged to move swiftly toward a land-for-peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

International concern has also been raised over Netanyahu’s promise to appoint Lieberman foreign minister. Lieberman has proposed transferring land where many of Israel’s 1.5 million Arab citizens live to a future Palestinian state in return for Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Netanyahu, still short of a ruling majority in the 120-member parliament, wants to shift the focus of currently stalled negotiations with the Palestinians from territorial to economic issues.

Barak said he would ask his party’s executive on Tuesday for a mandate to join a Likud-led administration.

“There is still a long way to go,” Labor negotiator Ofer Eini said after a morning session of talks with Likud officials. The negotiations, which he said focused on economic matters, were due to resume after nightfall.

Moshe Yaalon, a hardline Likud legislator slated by Netanyahu to become Defense minister, said Barak could have the post if Labor signed up.

“For the good of the country, the Labor Party should join the government,” Yaalon, a former armed forces chief, told Israel Radio.

UNITY

Netanyahu has said repeatedly since last month’s ballot that he prefers a “unity” government. But he has failed so far to woo the centrist Kadima party, which leads the outgoing government, into a wide coalition.

Kadima’s leader, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, has demanded Netanyahu commit to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

“Now we have 53 lawmakers tied into coalition agreements headed by Benjamin Netanyahu and in the coming days we will work to broaden the parliamentary base for support for his government,” said Likud legislator Gideon Saar.

Netanyahu faces an April 3 deadline to complete the formation of a government after being given the task last month by President Shimon Peres.

But Barak’s rivals in Labor said joining the government would sound the death knell for the party, once the dominant force in Israeli politics and now, with 13 seats, the fourth-largest party in parliament.

In last month’s election, Likud won 27 seats, Kadima polled 28, Yisrael Beitenu took 15 and Shas captured 11.

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