Procession of party chiefs calls on the president

Peres meets Knesset stars, then hoopsters.

President Shimon Peres had a very long day on Thursday. After consulting in the capital with 10 of the 12 party factions that will constitute the 18th Knesset, he had to go to Yad Eliahu in Tel Aviv to present the State Cup to the nation's top basketball team. That was probably the highlight of his day because there, he had no difficult choices to make. The scoreboard did it for him. On the previous evening Peres met with the Kadima and Likud factions. Of all 12 factions, only Kadima, with its 28 MKs, recommended that Peres designate Kadima leader Tzipi Livni to form the next government. The Likud, Habayit Hayehudi, Israel Beiteinu, Shas, National Union and United Torah Judaism (a total of 65 MKs) recommended that the mandate be given to Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu, while Meretz, Balad, Labor, Hadash and the United Arab List-Ta'al refrained from recommending anyone. Peres had initially planned to hold the meetings over three days, but decided to conclude them on Thursday evening in response to requests from party factions that emphasized the need to stitch together a new, stable government as quickly as possible. Only on completing his round of meetings, he said, would he be in a position to know precisely what each party wanted. "I cannot rely on what is written in the newspapers," he said. "Both from a legal and a logical standpoint, I have to hear out the delegations." What the pro-Netanyahu delegations wanted was for Kadima to join his coalition, which is why Peres is holding separate meetings with Netanyahu and Livni on Friday morning. Habayit Hayehudi was the first delegation to meet with the president on Thursday morning. Chairman Daniel Hershkowitz told Peres explicitly that while his party supported all options under a Netanyahu-led government, it favored a broad coalition. Asked whether Habayit Hayehudi could serve in the same government as Israel Beiteinu, Hershkowitz replied that one of the characteristics of his party was to live in peace with everyone, and he was confident that Habayit Hayehudi would find ways to be active in any constellation. The Meretz delegation arrived with a gift for Peres, a jar of jam made from roses processed by MK Ilan Gilon. "This is a socialist jam. That's why it's made from red roses," Gilon said as he brandished the jar. After the meeting, Meretz chairman Haim Oron said that they had not recommended anyone to Peres. Netanyahu's policies contradicted those of Meretz, and the party doubted that Livni would be able to form a government, he said. "The strange tango between Tzipi Livni and Avigdor Lieberman is a reason not to support Livni's efforts to form a government," said Oron, adding that Meretz could not fully or partially support any government that included Israel Beiteinu. Balad chairman Jamil Zahalka declared that neither Netanyahu nor Livni deserved to be prime minister, because neither had brought about peace, both had promoted increased discrimination against Arabs, and neither had done anything to relieve economic hardship among the weaker sectors of the population. Haneen Zuabi, the first Arab woman to be elected to the Knesset as a member of an Arab party, when asked whether as a woman she did not identify with Livni, was adamant about not wanting to identify with someone "who can oppress my people." Other than the fact that they were both women, "We have nothing in common," she said. When a journalist asked Zahalka whether he considered himself to be a loyal citizen of Israel, he said it was difficult for him as a Palestinian "to swear loyalty to a nation that rose on the ruins of my people." While he could not swear loyalty, he continued, he respected and obeyed the law. He would not swear loyalty to any country that he lived in, he said, because he regarded such a demand to be fascist. Just as Balad left, its nemesis Israel Beiteinu arrived, with chairman Lieberman sporting a brilliant scarlet silk tie that proved that red is not exclusively for socialists. Instantly besieged by media - with a large Russian-language representation - who demanded to know whom he would recommend for prime minister, Lieberman turned toward veteran Peres aide Yona Bar-Tal and said: "I'll recommend Yona." In the final analysis, it was Netanyahu, and Lieberman also suggested a triumvirate made up of Likud, Kadima and Israel Beiteinu, because too many small parties haggling over their demands would make the work of the government impossible. The large Shas delegation led by chairman Eli Yishai had announced during the campaign that it would recommend Netanyahu, and stuck to its word. Yishai impressed upon the president the urgency for coalition negotiations to be conducted as quickly as possible, because there was no point in dragging them out in the face of so many essential issues, not the least of which was the need to reduce unemployment. In view of Israel Beiteinu's intention to press for civil unions, Yishai was also asked whether Shas would be willing to sit in a government with Israel Beiteinu. The ideal option as far as Shas is concerned is a government comprising Likud, Shas, Kadima and Labor, "but we have not disqualified any party from joining the government," said Yishai. On the issue of civil unions, Yishai made the point that the Jewish people had survived in the Diaspora because it observed Torah Law. "Otherwise it would have disappeared," he said. MK Eitan Cabel explained that Labor had not recommended either Livni or Netanyahu "because we do not want to be partners in the process and have no intention of supporting a government led by Netanyahu. We have no alternative but to go to the opposition." "Netanyahu is an ideological rival whom we respect, but we cannot sit in his government," said MK Ophir Paz-Pines. MK Muhammad Barakei of Hadash echoed the Balad chairman, saying his party could not support either candidate, because neither had brought about peace and equality, nor did they fight against racism or seek to help the poorer sectors of society. "We don't know which is worse or which is worst," said UAL-Ta'al MK Ahmed Tibi of the two contenders. Equality was a burning issue for the Arab community, said MK Taleb a-Sanaa of the same party, adding that neither Livni nor Netanyahu had done anything in that direction. National Union chairman Ya'akov Katz declared that the election results had shown a shift to nationalism, Zionism and a love of the Land of Israel. While some people referred to his party as right wing, "we call it authentic Eretz Israel," he said. Katz had no objection to Kadima joining the coalition, providing that "Tzipi Livni returns to her [Herut/Likud] roots." "We want a stable government that includes Kadima, but under the leadership of Binyamin Netanyahu, and we want it to serve a full term," UTJ leader Ya'acov Litzman told Peres. MK Moshe Gafni stressed that it should be a broad coalition, because a 55-member opposition could seriously impact on the government's stability. MK Meir Porush emphasized the importance of Kadima being in the coalition rather than in the opposition.