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(photo credit: GPO)
Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu will begin efforts to form a national-unity government on Sunday by meeting with Kadima leader Tzipi Livni and Labor chairman Ehud Barak.
President Shimon Peres on Friday officially appointed Netanyahu to build a coalition.
He has until March 20 to put together a government, but he could request another two weeks from Peres, which would give him a final deadline of April 3.
In his acceptance speech at Beit Hanassi, Netanyahu asked all the parties to "put politics aside for the good of the country," singling out Livni and Barak.
"I believe we can find a joint path to lead Israel to security, prosperity and peace," Netanyahu said. "The biggest tragedies in the history of our people came when we failed to unite in the face of great challenges. The biggest victories came when we were able to put our differences aside and unite at the moment of truth."
The most likely scenario remained forming a narrow government with the 65 MKs of the Right bloc, Likud officials said on Saturday night. It would be difficult to add Kadima or Labor, because in the former the party's top figures want to join but the head of the party does not, while in Labor, the head wants to join but the rest of the faction wants to remain in the opposition, they said.
Livni told Netanyahu when he called her on Friday afternoon that her views had not changed and that the ideological gaps between their parties were too large to bridge.
But the leaders of her party asked her to not give Netanyahu a final no until after she reported to her faction on Sunday evening on what he offered her.
"We are still seeking a rotation in the Prime Minister's Office, but the main question that needs to be answered when they meet is about Netanyahu's flexibility on diplomatic issues," Kadima MK Tzahi Hanegbi said.
"If he says he would be in favor of diplomatic concessions, this might persuade us to join and other parties to remain outside the coalition. But we will be surprised if he says he is willing to make diplomatic concessions after he ruled out withdrawing from a single settlement."
Vice Premier Haim Ramon added that "a Likud-Kadima government is what is best for the nation, but for that to happen he [Netanyahu] has to disconnect from Shas and the extreme Right. Portfolios don't matter as much as Livni being able to continue her negotiations with Palestinian chief negotiator Ahmed Qurei."
Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit said he was willing to join a Netanyahu-led government if the Likud leader would endorse two states for two peoples as his goal.
Livni's No. 2, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, held consultations all weekend with Kadima MKs and told them that joining the next government and remaining in the opposition were both options for him, depending on the circumstances.
"The opposition might be good for Livni herself, but it's not good for Kadima," another top Kadima MK said.
Sources close to Netanyahu responded that he would offer Livni the vice premiership and nine portfolios.
He will tell her that he wants negotiations with the Palestinians to continue in an effort to live together in peace with defensible borders.
But Netanyahu will not agree to leave Shas out of the government, because of an unwritten agreement with the party that convinced Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to prevent Livni from forming a government in October.
Netanyahu vowed in that deal to to add Shas first to any government.
"The Likud will form a government, and we hope it will be with Kadima and even Labor, but we won't give up our majority that we have without them from the factions that recommended us to the president," Likud MK Reuven Rivlin said.
A Likud source said he believed Barak would like to join the government, especially because he knew he would not be opposition leader if Kadima remained outside the coalition.
The source revealed that there was "engagement between Likud and Labor," but predicted that it would only get in high gear after Kadima gave Likud a final "no."
Sources close to Barak said his views about Labor remaining in the opposition had not changed and he was under no pressure to change them.
A senior Labor official said the party would be more likely to join if Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman remained outside the government, something that was only expected to happen if he were indicted on the money laundering allegations police are investigating before a new government is formed.
Netanyahu and Lieberman met on Friday but neither side revealed the content of their conversation.