Netanyahu Invites Kadima, Labor to Join Coalition (L-R) FM Livni, head of Kadima and Netanyahu meet, February 2009. Photo: AP

February 20, 2009

Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud finished second in the Feb. 10 election, receives the mandate to form a government from President Shimon Peres and surprisingly offers to bring leading rivals Kadima and Labor into a centrist coalition instead of aligning with parties to Likud’s right. The right wing’s strength is the reason the second-place party receives the first shot at forming a government for the first time in Israel’s history.

Likud has 27 seats in the newly elected 18th Knesset. Kadima, which has led the government for more than three years under Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert and acting Prime Minister Tzipi Livni, has 28. Labor is the fourth-largest party with 13 seats, two behind Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, the leader of Labor, immediately declines the offer and announces his intention to lead the opposition. Kadima leader Livni, however, agrees to sit down with Netanyahu, despite their many policy disagreements.

In particular, Netanyahu opposes the Oslo negotiations with the Palestinians and the disengagement from Gaza; Livni is a big proponent of peace talks. Netanyahu’s plan as prime minister is not to end negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, but to redirect them toward the development of the Palestinian economy, infrastructure and institutions and away from a comprehensive peace deal.

In the end, Kadima stays out of Netanyahu’s coalition, and Barak and the Labor Party join a Likud-led government with Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas and the Jewish Home. Netanyahu begins his second term as prime minister March 31.