Israel heads for election as coalition talks falter

Israeli prime minister-designate Tzipi Livni today abandoned her efforts to form a new coalition government and said she would recommend early parliamentary elections.

Palestinians worried that the decision could put already fragile peace talks in limbo for months until the elections are held. The balloting could also clear the way for opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who rejects sweeping territorial concessions to the Palestinians, to reclaim the premiership.

Ms Livni has been trying to cobble together a government since she took over as head of the ruling Kadima Party from the corruption-tainted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in September. But partners in the current coalition, which took power in May 2006, used the changing of the guard to press new demands.

In a statement today, Ms Livni said she was willing to make concessions but had to put a stop to “impossible” demands.

“When it became clear that everyone and every party was exploiting the opportunity to make demands that were economically and diplomatically illegitimate, I decided to call off (talks) and go to elections,” she said.

Early elections had appeared likely since Friday, when the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party announced it would not join a Livni-led government.

Ms Livni resisted Shas’ demands that she refuse to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement with the Palestinians for Jerusalem, whose eastern sector the Palestinians claim as capital of their hoped-for state. She also refused to promise Shas the hundreds of millions of dollars it demanded for social welfare and its religious seminaries, aides said.

Shas has been a key member of the outgoing coalition, and without the party’s support, it will be difficult for Ms Livni to maintain a parliamentary majority.

Ms Livni planned formally to convey her decision to President Shimon Peres later today, government officials said. Elections for the 120-seat parliament, which were scheduled for November 2010, are likely to take place in February or March, political commentators have said.

Ms Livni has been serving as Israel’s chief peace negotiator since talks were formally relaunched last November at a US-hosted summit. The sides had hoped to reach a final peace accord by the end of the year, though both Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have said that target is unrealistic.

An aide to Abbas warned that the Israeli political turmoil could threaten peacemaking.

“Time is precious. The next few months will be wasted because of new elections and the US elections,” Nabil Abu Rdeneh said.

Ms Livni could still try to put together a government with a narrow majority, but it would not have the broad mandate or stability needed to shepherd through a peace accord with the Palestinians that would require painful Israeli concessions. Israel is also holding indirect peace talks with Syria after an eight-year freeze.

Before Ms Livni’s coalition-building efforts faltered, opinion polls had given her and Mr Netanyahu even odds on taking power. Although some voters might like her tough stand against Shas, her failure to muster a government could hurt her political standing while burnishing Mr Netanyahu’s.

Peacemaking foundered during Mr Netanyahu’s 3-year tenure as prime minister in the 1990s, and his positions have not softened since.

He quit Ariel Sharon’s government because he opposed Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and opposes ceding sovereignty over any part of east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as capital of their hoped-for state and insist on shared sovereignty over the city. East Jerusalem is home to key Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites.

The move to elections could propel Mr Olmert, who is stepping down to combat multiple corruption allegations, and Mr Abbas to redouble their efforts to achieve a peacemaking breakthrough.

In an interview last month, Mr Olmert said Israel would have to give up nearly all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem if it wants peace with the Palestinians. He also said Israel would have to relinquish the Golan Heights, likewise captured in 1967, to obtain peace with Syria.

A meeting between Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas, which had been scheduled for Monday, was postponed until further notice because of the Israeli political upheaval.

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

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