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Ending Israeli coalition talks, Livni calls for early elections

Shas party holds firm on status of Jerusalem

By Steve Weizman
Associated Press / October 26, 2008
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JERUSALEM - Israel's prime minister designate, Tzipi Livni, decided yesterday to give up efforts to form a new governing coalition and will recommend early national elections, Israeli radio stations reported.

After consulting with her advisers, Livni decided to abandon the coalition talks and inform President Shimon Peres today that she would call for a general election, according to Israel Radio and Army Radio.

The election is expected to take place in February. The next parliamentary vote had been scheduled for 2010.

"Tomorrow afternoon she will go to the president," Cabinet minister Tzahi Hanegbi, Livni's point man on coalition talks, said in an earlier interview with Channel Two TV.

Livni on Thursday announced an ultimatum, giving potential coalition partners three days to join a new government under her leadership or face the prospect of going to the polls.

Her Kadima party already has the backing of the center-left Labor party and is likely to keep the small Pensioners party in the government but needed to get the ultra-Orthodox Shas party on board to secure a solid majority in the 120-seat parliament.

On Friday, however, Shas said it would not join Livni as she had refused to pledge that the future status of Jerusalem would not be on the agenda in negotiations with the Palestinians.

Sovereignty over Arab parts of Jerusalem, where around 270,000 Palestinians live, is a key Palestinian demand without which a peace treaty would be impossible.

The renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at a US-hosted conference last November was supposed to have produced a final deal by the end of 2008, but there has been no agreement and both sides have acknowledged that the target is unreachable.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said yesterday that a scheduled meeting tomorrow between outgoing the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, had been postponed.

He did not say why. Israel Radio, citing unnamed Abbas aides, said the postponement was due to internal Israeli political events.

Given the lack of movement toward a peace treaty and the lack of any encouraging signs for the near future, Palestinian and Israeli analysts say that an Israeli election, even if it were to put opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu in power at the head of a hard-line rightist government, could ultimately have less impact on peace talks than the upcoming US presidential vote.

Opinion polls have indicated that Netanyahu's hawkish Likud party would sweep to power in a general election.

By law if Livni does not win parliament's approval for her government by Nov. 3, the country will almost certainly face spring elections, more than a year ahead of schedule.

Peres could technically ask another politician to try to form a government before elections are forced. However, as leader of the largest party in parliament, Livni is the only candidate with a realistic chance of doing so.

In a separate development, nearly 600 newly trained Palestinian troops took up positions in the West Bank city of Hebron yesterday, as part of Abbas's attempt to expand his control in the West Bank and keep the Islamic militant group Hamas in line.

Hebron, a former Hamas stronghold, is the third Palestinian city to be reinforced with Abbas's forces. The predawn deployment signaled growing security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

An Israeli army statement said, however, that the Palestinian operation was a temporary measure to help combat Hamas and maintain public order and did not constitute a transfer of overall security responsibility from Israeli to Palestinian forces.

In recent months, Abbas has been trying to take over more areas of the West Bank.

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