JERUSALEM Feb 19 – Hawkish Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday gained pole position to become Israel’s next prime minister as ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman backed his bid to form a government.
The support from Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party means Netanyahu, a former premier popularly known as Bibi, can count on the support of 65 of the 120 members of parliament, pundits said.
"We recommend Bibi Netanyahu, but only as part of a wider government," Lieberman told President Shimon Peres who was meeting with parliamentary factions before deciding who will be tasked with forming a governing coalition.
"To govern the country, we need a government with the three largest parties, Likud, Kadima and Yisrael Beitenu," said Lieberman, a Soviet immigrant whose party displaced Labour as the third largest parliamentary faction in last week’s elections.
"Those that want to join (the coalition) can do so later," Lieberman added.
But the governing Kadima’s response was lukewarm at best.
"Kadima must serve the people on the opposition benches," said Finance Minister Roni Bar-on.
Foreign Minister and party leader Tzipi Livni, for her part insisted "Kadima will not support a paralysed government. Kadima and I will continue on the track we have taken to push forward the peace process and fight against terrorism."
Lieberman, on the other hand, stressed he did not consider the Middle East peace talks the most pressing for Israel.
"The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a priority," he said in a speech expected to raise further concerns over the future of the already hobbled process.
"Our biggest threat comes from Iran, with its nuclear programme and its proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah," Lieberman said at a conference of US Jewish organisations in Jerusalem.
Peres met with Likud and Kadima representatives on Wednesday and was holding talks with the other 10 factions on Thursday.
Kadima had suggested a power-sharing deal with Netanyahu similar to the one Israel had in 1984 after another close ballot, when the two leading parties each held the post of prime minister for two years.
But Lieberman said that "Livni must give up the idea of a rotation as such a solution would cause instability."
Netanyahu has also rejected the rotating premiership option and made it clear he favours a broad coalition including Kadima, rather than an alliance with parties to the right of his own.
Kadima won 28 parliamentary seats in the February 10 election, just one more than the Likud, but has far fewer potential coalition allies than its right-wing rival.
Right-wing parties made dramatic gains overall in the election, which was held in the wake of Israel’s deadly 22-day offensive on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and was dominated by security concerns.
Under Israeli law, the task of forming a government does not automatically go to the party that garnered the most votes but to the one most likely to be able to form a majority coalition.
Peres is to announce his decision on Sunday or Monday, his spokeswoman Ayelet Frish said.
The Kadima delegation on Wednesday pressed the president, who is himself drawn from Livni’s centrist faction, to give the party the first go at attempting to forge a governing coalition, but the Likud insisted that Netanyahu was better placed to lead a new government.
The person tasked by Peres to form a government will have 28 days to put together a coalition. If necessary Peres can extend the deadline by 14 days.
The election was called after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert handed in his resignation in September after being questioned by police over a series of graft scandals. He has stayed on as acting premier.