Livni seeks the missing pieces

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Khalil is a Times staff writer.

Israeli Prime Minister-designate Tzipi Livni has asked for and received a two-week extension on her original four-week deadline to form a new governing coalition.

With nearly a month of Jewish holidays ending Wednesday, the negotiations to bring other political parties on board should heat up fast. Here’s a primer on the proceedings.

So what’s the real deadline?

Nov. 3, with no further extensions. Livni, who narrowly won the Kadima Party leadership a month ago, has until then to assemble a government that will gain 61 votes of approval in the 120-member Israeli parliament, known as the Knesset.


What happens if Livni fails?

President Shimon Peres could assign another Knesset member the task of forming the government. That new prime minister-designate would have another month, plus the two-week extension if necessary. But Peres could instead opt to abandon the effort and call new national elections. Within Kadima, a Livni failure could spark a challenge to her party leadership.

Any surprises so far?

Not really. Livni had been expected to take more than a month, and her alliance with Labor Party leader and Defense Minister Ehud Barak was also no surprise. The main questions center on which parties they will persuade to fill out the coalition. Together, Labor and Kadima currently hold 48 seats.

What other parties are likely to join?

The ultra-orthodox Shas party leads the pack with 12 seats, followed by United Torah Judaism, with six seats, and the five-seat leftist Meretz party. Shas is accustomed to playing the kingmaker role, able to create or topple governing coalitions. It demands millions of dollars in welfare payments that favor larger, ultra-Orthodox families and a government pledge not to negotiate over dividing Jerusalem.

Why is Shas so important?

In addition to the number of seats it holds, Shas’ involvement could be crucial to the public perception that Livni’s government is socially and politically inclusive. The right-wing party’s supporters are generally poorer and of non-European descent, in contrast to the Ashkenazi (European) social and political elite that the Labor and Kadima leaderships both represent. Politically, many Israelis would regard Shas as a necessary brake on Livni’s ability to make too many concessions in peace talks with the Palestinians.

What would a coalition without Shas look like?

Livni could turn to dovish Meretz or the religious United Torah Judaism, but probably not both given the wide gaps in the two parties’ policies. Either scenario would leave her short of 61 seats. But a key point: She doesn’t need 61 Knesset members who agree to participate in her ruling coalition, but 61 willing to vote to approve formation of the coalition. So further deal-making could persuade the last few swing members to vote yes without joining the government.

What does all this mean for the peace talks with the Palestinians?

Whether Shas joins, and at what price, will help determine how much leeway Livni has in negotiations -- especially regarding territorial concessions. Caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Olmert kept Shas in his government by keeping negotiations on Jerusalem low-key. Livni could do the same with the knowledge that if she did agree to a plan that would include dividing Jerusalem, Shas would immediately quit the coalition.




Batsheva Sobelman of The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.