Sunday 26th October 2008
By Matthew Kalman
Israel is heading towards an early general election and the likely return of hardline former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was elected as head of the governing Kadima Party last month, replacing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was forced to stand aside because of a raft of corruption scandals.
After more than a month of wheeler-dealing, Livni could not persuade enough parties to join a new government under her leadership. She described the pressures exerted by smaller parties as 'extortion'.
Israel is heading towards an early general election after Tzipi Livni failed to persuade enough parties to join a new government under her leadership
Because of Israel's Byzantine political process, a general election is not expected until February.
Polls indicate that the likely winner will be the right-wing Likud Party, signaling the return to power of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after a decade in opposition.
Peacemaking foundered during Netanyahu's three-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. He also opposes ceding sovereignty over any part of east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
The political turmoil in Israel is matched by uncertainty in the Palestinian Authority, where President Mahmoud Abbas is due to end his term in January.
There are no plans yet for fresh elections among the Palestinians, who are deeply divided between Abbas's Fatah movement and Hamas, who seized power in Gaza more than a year ago.
The Middle East peace process, already in deep freeze, is now effectively on hold for the foreseeable future.
The key decision that sank Livni's ambitions was taken by the Ovadia Yosef, the octogenarian rabbi who leads the ultra-orthodox Shas Party.
Yosef ordered his followers not to enter Livni's new cabinet, apparently believing that Shas would receive greater power and bigger budgets from Netanyahu, as they did when he was prime minister from 1996 to 1999.
Livni went to the official residence of Israeli President Shimon Peres this afternoon to inform him of her decision to end her efforts at forming a coalition.
Peres said he expected the election to take place within 90 days.
Livni told reporters after meeting Peres that Shas and other parties had tried to force her into 'a government of paralysis' because of its exaggerated budget demands.
'I wasn't prepared to sacrifice Israel's economy in order to form a coalition,' she said.
'We'll go to elections as soon as possible. I'm not afraid of elections.
'The other possibility was for me to capitulate to extortion. But a government is supposed to advance processes and represent the good of the country, not just to survive in this or that coalition.
'I promised to exhaust efforts to form a government, and that's what I did.'