Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman returned from his Minsk vacation on Wednesday night to find that his status as kingmaker for a prospective coalition had been reduced after factions totaling 77 MKs decided not to join any prospective government led by Kadima leader Tzipi Livni.
United Torah Judaism decided on Wednesday to join the Likud, Shas, Habayit Hayehudi and the National Union for a total of 50 MKs who will recommend to President Shimon Peres that Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu form a government.
When the Labor faction meets Thursday morning, it is expected to join Meretz and the three Arab parties in deciding to remain in the opposition no matter who forms a government, to protest the assurances that Kadima gave Israel Beiteinu in pursuit of Lieberman's endorsement. Both Labor and Meretz are also being pressed to rehabilitate their parties after their losses in last Tuesday's election.
That leaves only two factions out of 12, including Kadima's 28 MKs and perhaps Israel Beiteinu's 15, who could potentially tell Peres in consultations set to end Thursday that they want him to entrust Livni to form a government.
Likud officials said it was clearer than ever that Peres would end up selecting Netanyahu without insisting on a rotation with Livni.
"We asked the factions on the Right to not only tell Peres that they wanted Netanyahu to form a government, but also that they would not join a government led by anyone else," a Likud official explained. "We expect Lieberman to back us, but if not, it no longer matters."
Israel Beiteinu refuted contradictory reports in the Hebrew press about whom Lieberman would recommend to Peres. They said that his decision would not be revealed until he met with the president at 10:30 on Thursday morning.
Two days after Kadima responded positively to all of Israel Beiteinu's demands except for the initiation of a loyalty oath, Likud followed suit, agreeing to its requests to topple Hamas, change the electoral system, fund immigrants and find solutions for converts seeking an easier path into Judaism and couples seeking recognition for civil unions without a religious ceremony.
Kadima and Likud each mocked the commitments of the other for not being specific enough, but the head of Israel Beiteinu's negotiating team, MK Stas Meseznikov, said they were satisfied with the responses of both parties.
"Neither of their responses were perfect, but from the seriousness of what they wrote, we are confident that our five requests will be in the coalition guidelines, and that's what really matters to us," Meseznikov said.
Likud officials warned that they could take revenge against Israel Beiteinu by leaving the party out of the coalition if Lieberman recommended anyone but Netanyahu to Peres. Lieberman's options include recommending himself or neither candidate and pushing for the formation of a national-unity government.
There were no surprises on Wednesday night at Beit Hanassi, other than the fact that Kadima MK Tzahi Hanegbi, in a break with accepted practice, stayed behind after other members of the faction left the grounds to make way for the Likud.
Hanegbi lingered as a symbolic one-man welcoming committee for former colleagues Gideon Sa'ar, Silvan Shalom, Yuval Steinitz and Dan Meridor, as if to convey the impression that Kadima had already been awarded the mandate to form the next government.
As was expected, the Kadima delegation recommended that Peres assign the mission of putting together a coalition to Livni, while the Likud recommended that he give the task to Netanyahu.
Kadima met first with Peres, explained Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On, "because we got the most votes."
Kadima insisted that Livni has the best chance of forming a national-unity government, because, said Bar-On, the country could not be led by a coalition of extremists, be they from the Left or the Right.
Kadima believed that all Zionist parties would respond positively to Livni's call, he said.
A national-unity government was essential in light of all the challenges confronting Israel, said Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz.
According to Bar-On, there was no mention of a rotation government, but he had suggested to the president that in the event that he did not come to a decision over the weekend, he should summon Livni and Netanyahu and sit them down in a locked room from which they would not be allowed to come out until a deal was reached.
No matter which way you did the math, said Likud faction chairman Sa'ar, Netanyahu was the only candidate for prime minister who the voters wanted, and who five parties had signaled they would recommend.
In the end there would be six parties recommending Netanyahu, if Lieberman stuck to what he said in the past, Sa'ar said.
Underscoring that Livni had failed to form a government in the fall, Shalom said that her chances were even slimmer in the aftermath of the elections.
It would be a waste of time to give her the opportunity to prove that her efforts would be futile, he said, especially when there were urgent matters such as foreign policy, defense, the economy and Iran to attend to.
No member of Knesset other than Netanyahu had a realistic chance of forming a government, said Steinitz.
Sa'ar, in response to a question, said there would be no rotation government and under no circumstances would Likud join a government headed by Kadima.
"If we were ready to do that, we would have sat in the last government," he said.