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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
President Shimon Peres is expected to formally entrust Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu with building a coalition on Sunday, after making a last-ditch effort on Friday to persuade Kadima leader Tzipi Livni to join a national-unity government.
Following 24 hours in which 65 MKs urged Peres to designate him to form a coalition, Netanyahu said that as soon as that happened, he would ask Livni and Labor chairman Ehud Barak to join a broad government under his leadership.
"A wide national-unity government is especially necessary in light of the major challenges Israel is facing from Iran, terror and the international economic crisis," Netanyahu said.
But privately, Netanyahu's associates admitted that there was no chance of persuading either Kadima or Labor to join his government and that there was also no hope of breaking up the Kadima faction, where no one has yet challenged Livni's authority.
That leaves Netanyahu with no choice but to form a narrow government of 65 MKs on the Right, including Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman and MKs from Shas, whose mentor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, recently called Lieberman the devil.
Netanyahu said repeatedly during the campaign that not forming a national-unity government when he was prime minister from 1996-99 was his worst-ever political mistake. But Livni left him no choice but to repeat it when she vowed to remain in the opposition.
"Today, the foundations of a right-wing extremist government under Netanyahu were set," Livni wrote in a cellular phone text message sent to some 80,000 Kadima members Thursday. "The path of such a government is not our own and we have nothing to look for there. You didn't vote for us in order to provide a kosher certificate for a right-wing government, and we need to provide an alternative of hope from the opposition."
Livni's associates said she knew she could have received an unlimited number of portfolios from Netanyahu, but she was not willing to sacrifice her ideology, which she believes is far removed from that of the Likud.
They said she would meet with Peres on Friday and Netanyahu next week out of respect for the president and the prime minister to be, but that her mind was made up.
"She knows that only the prime minister decides things in this country and she wasn't willing to be a bumper, a stain remover or a whitener for a Bibi-Lieberman government that her voters didn't want her to join," a source close to Livni said.
No Kadima lawmakers undermined Livni by pushing to join the coalition or to leave Kadima. But one MK said privately that he hoped Kadima would hold internal elections soon and that she would be overthrown.
One Kadima MK expressed relief that Livni would not be tasked with forming a government, because had she failed for a second time in four months, it would have been hard for her and the party to recover.
Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit issued veiled criticism of Livni in an interview with Army Radio in which he said that "those who approached [Lieberman] on behalf of Kadima made a severe political blunder, since responding to him caused Labor and Meretz to boycott us, and ruled out any alternative for us."
Kadima MKs hoped until the last minute on Thursday that Lieberman would not endorse Netanyahu to form a government. They only realized that their hopes were dashed when Army Radio reporter Sefi Ovadia broke the story that Lieberman had revealed that he would back Netanyahu in a secret meeting of the Israel Beiteinu faction on Thursday morning following his return from a vacation in Minsk.
Lieberman said he made two recommendations to Peres: that he appoint Netanyahu, and the formation of a coalition comprising only the three largest parties - Kadima, Likud and Israel Beiteinu.
But he later said that he would not threaten Netanyahu that his party would not join a coalition that would not include Kadima.
"We think that with the challenges faced from inside and out, everyone must give up their ambitions, prestige and dreams," Lieberman told reporters at Beit Hanassi following his meeting with Peres. "There is no other way. A narrow government would be a 'survivor government' that would fight daily about budgets and no-confidence votes and wouldn't be able to function."
In a sign that he intended to fight with haredi parties in such a coalition, Lieberman said that Netanyahu should not give them the veto power they enjoyed in past governments to prevent electoral reform and changes in the status quo on matters of religion and state.
"We can't accept rabbis dictating whether we should be changing the governmental system or building an emergency room at the hospital in Ashkelon," Lieberman said.
Shas chairman Eli Yishai also flexed his political muscles when he suggested the formation of a government with Likud, Kadima, Labor and Shas, and without Israel Beiteinu.
But National Union leader Ya'akov Katz said he believed a homogeneous, right-wing government had the best chance of surviving.
"Such a government is the most stable, authentic and strong," Katz said.
Greer Fay Cashman and Rebecca Anna Stoil contributed to this report.