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Israel's far-right crowns Netanyahu

FAR-RIGHT politician Avigdor Lieberman yesterday endorsed Benjamin Netanyahu for Israeli prime minister, all but guaranteeing that the United States-educated hawk will be the country's next leader.

The divisive Lieberman emerged as the kingmaker of Israeli politics after the February 10 election produced a deadlock between its two largest parties, and his backing of Netanyahu could be the basis for a hard-line government.

Such a government could freeze peace talks with the Palestinians, hurt Israel's standing in the world and place it on a possible collision course with United States President Barack Obama, who has said Middle East peace making will be a top priority of his administration.

Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu Party finished third in the election, essentially allowing him to determine whether Netanyahu or Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, his chief rival, would be able to muster the backing of a majority in parliament.

Lieberman announced his decision in a meeting with President Shimon Peres, who is holding consultations with political parties before choosing a candidate to form a government.

If Peres names Netanyahu, then Netanyahu will have six weeks to work out a deal with other parties to create a coalition.

Lieberman told Peres that Netanyahu's Likud Party should head the new government, but that he supports a coalition that includes Livni's centrist Kadima Party as well.

"We need a wide government with the three big parties, Likud, Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu," Lieberman said. "Netanyahu will lead the government but it will be a government of Netanyahu and Livni together."

But Livni said she would not compromise on Kadima's pledge to seek peace with the Palestinians nor join a government that was crippled by internal political constraints.

"I have no intention of changing even a fraction of Kadima's path," a Kadima Party statement quoted her as saying. "I will not serve as a fig leaf for a government of paralysis."

She stopped short, however, of ruling out the Lieberman proposal unequivocally.

Livni has indicated that she would join a government with Netanyahu if the premiership rotates between them. So far, Netanyahu has ruled that out and, in a speech in Jerusalem yesterday, so did Lieberman.

"I don't see any possibility for any (rotation) in the prime minister," he told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "Netanyahu must be prime minister."

Lieberman has raised eyebrows with calls to make members of Israel's Arab minority swear loyalty to the state or lose citizenship. Analysts say there is little chance of such a move winning a parliamentary majority and even if it did it would likely be struck down by the courts.

Kadima officials said they were likely headed toward the opposition.

"If Kadima joins a government like this, based on these guidelines, Kadima will be wiped off the political map," Kadima Cabinet Minister Meir Sheetrit told Israel Radio.


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