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Netanyahu to lead Israel, calls for unity

HAWKISH politician Benjamin Netanyahu urged his centrist rivals to join him in a unity coalition after Israel's ceremonial president formally asked him yesterday to form Israel's next government.

Tzipi Livni, the moderate foreign minister also vying for Israel's top job, appeared to leave the door open to teaming up with Netanyahu. However, her price for doing so may be too high: a rotation arrangement in which both she and Netanyahu serve as prime minister.

President Shimon Peres' decision to ask Netanyahu ended days of speculation and gave Netanyahu six weeks to put together a ruling coalition. The question now is whether Netanyahu will form a narrow government with his hard-line allies or a broad government along with Livni. His choice will have serious ramifications for peace effort in the Middle East.

Netanyahu urged Livni of the governing Kadima Party and Defense Minister Ehud Barak of the Labor Party to join his government.

Peres made his announcement yesterday after meeting Netanyahu and Livni. The choice of Netanyahu was cemented on Thursday when Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party, endorsed Netanyahu.

Lieberman's party, which based its campaign on requiring Israel's Arab citizens to swear loyalty to the Jewish state or lose their citizenship, came in third place in the February 10 election, after Kadima and Netanyahu's Likud. That essentially allowed him to determine whether Netanyahu or Livni would be able to muster the backing of a majority in parliament.

Kadima edged out Likud in the election, capturing 28 seats to Likud's 27. But Likud is in a better position to put together a coalition because of gains by Lieberman and other hard-line parties.


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