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Israeli leaders vie for control

FOREIGN Minister Tzipi Livni said yesterday that if she doesn't become Israel's next prime minister, she will lead her governing Kadima Party into the opposition ?? a move that could indefinitely stall the Middle East peace process.

It wasn't clear whether Livni, Israel's chief negotiator with the Palestinians, was ruling out a coalition headed by Benjamin Netanyahu's hawkish Likud Party ?? or angling for better terms for her centrist party should it choose to enter such a coalition.

Kadima captured 28 of parliament's 120 seats in Israeli elections last week, barely edging out Likud, which won 27. But parties that take a hard line on concessions toward the Palestinians won a total of 65 seats, versus 55 for the more moderate camp, meaning it would be easier for Netanyahu to put together a coalition government.

President Shimon Peres is allowed to assign the task to whatever party he thinks is best able to form a government, and is expected to announce his decision late this week. Both Livni and Netanyahu have called on each other to join a broad-based government, but neither has indicated readiness to serve under the other.

Livni said Kadima's edge gives it the right to lead the government. "If not, we will continue to fight for what is right from the opposition," she told a meeting of Kadima law makers yesterday.

Livni's Kadima is in danger of breaking apart, however, if it is relegated to the opposition. The party is an amalgam of hawks and centrists drawn largely from the Likud, and some of its law makers might break away and rejoin Likud if it is in power.

Earlier yesterday, Kadima Cabinet Minister Avi Dichter said Kadima would agree to a power-sharing arrangement in which Livni and Netanyahu would take turns being premier.

As Israel's chief peace negotiator over the past year, Livni agreed to discuss with the Palestinians all the major issues - final borders of the Jewish and Palestinian states, the fate of disputed Jerusalem and a resolution of Palestinian refugees' claims.

Netanyahu says there is no point discussing these matters because the Palestinians aren't ready to govern themselves. He wants to focus on improving the Palestinians' economy, on the ground that prosperity would make them more open to peace.

If Likud and Kadima don't join forces, the kingmaker would be the ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu is the country's third-largest party, with 15 seats in parliament.


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