WORLD> Middle East
Netanyahu fails to land centrist rival's support
Updated: 2009-02-27 22:23

JERUSALEM -- Benjamin Netanyahu failed to persuade his centrist rival, Tzipi Livni, to join him in a broad coalition Friday, increasing the likelihood that Israel's next government will be an alliance of hawks and hard-line religious parties opposed to substantial concessions for peace.

Incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Israel's Foreign Minister and Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni sit together prior to their meeting in Tel Aviv, Israel, Friday, Feb. 27, 2009. Netanyahu is trying to convince the centrist Livni to join the government he is forming, but the two differ on their approach to peace talks with the Palestinians. [Agencies]

However, Livni did not shut the door on any possibility of an agreement, and Netanyahu still has five weeks to cobble together a government.

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Livni, who heads the centrist Kadima Party and served as chief negotiator with the Palestinians, supports the formation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Netanyahu does not, and the two have been unable to bridge the gap.

"This meeting has ended without agreements on issues that I see as substantial," Livni said after her discussion with Netanyahu in Tel Aviv. "There could be a government that advances these issues. At the moment, based on the discussion I held in the adjacent room, that government won't be Netanyahu's."

Netanyahu can form a hard-line government that will give him a 65-seat majority in the 120-seat parliament. But that narrow margin means virtually any of his partners could bring down the government in any dispute. A centrist government with Livni would also help Netanyahu ward off international pressure on Israel and avoid a clash with a US president who has promised to become "aggressively" involved in pursuing Mideast peace.

As Israel tries to form a new government, a flurry of diplomatic activity now under way could bring significant shifts in the conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians and among the Palestinians themselves.

On Monday, international donors will meet in Egypt for a conference on Gaza's reconstruction. The Palestinians are seeking $2.8 billion dollars.

At the same time, Israel and Hamas are holding talks through Egyptian mediation meant to produce a long-term truce in Gaza in the aftermath of Israel's offensive against Hamas, which ended Jan. 18. Hamas wants Israel to open Gaza's blockaded border crossings, a step Israel says it won't take until Hamas returns Sgt. Gilad Schalit, an Israeli soldier it has held since June, 2006.

Hamas is also holding talks with its rivals from Fatah aimed at ending the violent spat between them, which culminated in Hamas' rout of Fatah and takeover of Gaza in June, 2007. The goal is to forge a power-sharing agreement that will end the split, which threatens to derail the Palestinians' goal of achieving an independent state.

On Friday, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana toured Gaza. Solana was the highest ranking European official to visit the territory since it was overrun by Hamas, and his visit was a sign of increasing international engagement in the long-isolated Palestinian enclave.

Solana was not slated to meet with representatives of Hamas, boycotted internationally as a terror group.

"I came to express solidarity with the people of Gaza and to tell them that we will be helping them in the reconstruction process," Solana said, standing at the ruins of the American International School of Gaza, destroyed by Israeli bombs during the offensive.

The EU's executive office, the European Commission, said Friday it was earmarking $556 million for the Palestinians in 2009, though it was not clear how much of that was aimed at Gaza. The US is expected to pledge $900 million at next week's conference.

Solana's visit is part of an increase in the number of high-profile foreign dignitaries coming to Gaza since the offensive. US Senator John Kerry visited last week, the highest-level visit by a US official since the Hamas takeover in June, 2007. Norway's foreign minister was also in Gaza on Friday.

The visits could indicate a greater willingness of the international community to become involved in Gaza, which has been largely isolated since Hamas came to power.

Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks, is boycotted by Israel, the US and the EU as a terrorist organization. The international community has demanded the group recognize Israel and renounce violence, conditions it has refused.

But while that remains official policy, there have been calls to engage with the group anyway, including a letter published Thursday in the Times of London and signed by a number of international diplomats, including a former U.N. envoy to Israel and the Palestinian territories and Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister.

"Hamas has sustained its support in Palestinian society despite attempts to destroy it through economic blockades, political boycotts and military incursions. This approach is not working; a new strategy must be found," reads the letter.