Israel's Olmert Hastens to Form Governing Coalition

Times Staff Writer

Urged by Israel's president to move swiftly, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert began working Wednesday to assemble a governing coalition in the wake of his centrist party's narrower-than-expected election victory.

The pressing nature of the task was underscored in Gaza City by the swearing-in of the new Palestinian government dominated by the Islamist group Hamas -- a regional milestone that will greatly complicate any steps on the peace front.

Since its own election victory two months ago, Hamas has resisted calls to renounce its aim of destroying Israel. Now that its Cabinet is officially in place, that stance is likely to bring about a near-cessation of official Palestinian contacts with whatever Israeli government emerges and to imperil international aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Wednesday, in the latest international move to isolate Hamas, Canada announced that it was suspending assistance to the Palestinian Authority.

With a glum-looking Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas looking on, members of the new Palestinian Cabinet each laid a hand on a Koran and took the oath of office.

The ceremony was linked by video teleconference between Gaza City and the West Bank town of Ramallah, because of travel restrictions placed by Israel on Hamas lawmakers and government ministers.

Israel's president, Moshe Katsav, said an array of potential threats had spurred him to put aside the waiting period for a formal announcement of election results, expected to be made next week. He called on the various political factions -- some of them natural allies, some of them bitter foes -- to start aligning themselves without delay.

"The new government does not have much time -- there are weighty issues on the agenda," Katsav said. "All the parties ... should pull together and start cooperating so that the government can form and run the country." Informal talks between the various political camps were already underway, Israeli media reported.

Tuesday's election results gave a clear victory to Israeli parties that are committed to ceding more territory to the Palestinians in the wake of last summer's Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip.

Both Olmert's party, Kadima, and the second-place Labor Party say Israel will have to give up many of its West Bank settlements, though the two differ on whether the Jewish state should proceed unilaterally or on the basis of negotiations.

With Hamas now in power, however, any peace talks are highly unlikely. Still, Olmert signaled in his victory speech that he hoped to maintain contacts with the more pragmatic Abbas.

Israeli analysts and Olmert's allies said that although Kadima's mandate was smaller than he had hoped for -- 28 seats in the 120-member Knesset -- parties likely to ally with him would be able to fend off efforts by the right wing to block West Bank withdrawals.

"I believe we will have more than 70 legislators who will support the disengagement plan," senior Kadima lawmaker Haim Ramon told Israel Radio on Wednesday.

But the results will leave Olmert and Kadima vulnerable to the often-bruising vicissitudes of Israeli coalition politics.

"A leading party with less than 30 seats is much more dependent on partner parties," said analyst Yoram Peri of Tel Aviv University.

And some influential commentators pointed to the low voter turnout and Kadima's slippage in support in the weeks before the elections as signs that Olmert would have to proceed with caution.

"The voters accepted him and his plan, but did so with a decided lack of enthusiasm," prominent political analyst Nahum Barnea wrote in the Yediot Aharonot mass-circulation daily.

"He and his party are going to have to work hard to stabilize the government and to establish their public standing. They are in a test period -- a little modesty wouldn't hurt them."

In Israel, the assembling of a governing coalition traditionally entails delicate negotiations coupled with bare-knuckled assertion of claims to the most powerful government ministries.

Labor, by virtue of picking up 20 Knesset seats, will be in a position to demand senior Cabinet positions such as the Ministry of Finance or Defense. Its strong showing also dictates that the social welfare issues championed by its leader, Amir Peretz, will have to be high on the new government's agenda.

Small but important players in the new government could include the Pensioners Party, which won a very respectable seven seats advocating the rights of the elderly -- to the bemusement of many Israelis.

"Who would have thought the trendy, 'hot' party in this election would be an obscure bunch of senior citizens?" commentator Ofer Shelah wrote on Yediot Aharonot's website, YNET.

Olmert has said any coalition partners must support his plan to consolidate West Bank settlements and draw Israel's borders. Some parties scrambled to retrofit their views in order to reap the benefits of entering the government.

The constituents of Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party that placed third with 13 seats, have vehemently opposed pullbacks from Palestinian territory in the past. But as coalition discussions began, the party was touting a ruling by its spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, that such withdrawals were in keeping with scriptural edicts that saving lives was the highest religious priority.

The vote was nothing short of a full-blown disaster for former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud Party, once a political powerhouse, fell to fifth place.

Israeli media buzzed Wednesday with accounts of furious but anonymous senior party figures sharpening the political knives to force him from the party leadership.

Some saw poetic justice in the voter rebuke of Netanyahu, who had tirelessly harried Prime Minister Ariel Sharon before the Israeli leader was felled by a massive stroke.

"It was Ariel Sharon's last revenge," columnist Ben Caspit wrote in the Maariv daily. "He is lying between life and death, and now the Likud is in similar straits."

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Times special correspondent Fayed abu Shammaleh in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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