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Europe

EU Casts Doubt on Netanyahu's Commitment to Peace

EU diplomats urged the next Israeli government not to abandon the two-state solution and raised concerns over PM designate Benjamin Netanyahu's commitment to the Middle East peace process.

Benjamin Netanyahu addresses supporters

Netanyahu backs a two-state solution but says any future Palestinian state must be demilitarized

"I think we could have a rough start but we need to move ahead with the peace process because the two-state solution road is narrowing and we can't afford the luxury of waiting," said the Czech Republic's Europe Minister Alexander Vondra on Monday, Feb. 23, at a meeting with the EU'S 27 foreign ministers in Brussels. The Czech Republic currently holds the EU's rotating presidency.

Asked about the prospects of a coalition headed by hard-line Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt said that the EU should push Netanyahu not to enter into a coalition which would call the two-state solution into question.

"I think it's very important that we send a strong signal that that is not going to be acceptable," he said.

Nevertheless, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana stressed that the bloc was "ready to cooperate with the government elected by the people."

"I think the time for crisis management is over and we have to (focus on) conflict resolution as soon as possible," Solana said.

Solana plans to tour the Middle East this week, ahead of a March 2 Gaza donors' conference in Egypt.

EU officials also urged Israel to re-open border crossings into the Gaza Strip, with Bildt saying that "reconstruction without ending the siege is useless."

Coalition negotiations

Tzipi Livni

Livni is now playing a queenmaker role

Israeli President Shimon Peres asked hard-liner Netanyahu to form the next Israeli cabinet last Friday, after holding consultations with the country's party leaders.

Although the centrist Kadima party won 28 seats in the election, one more than the Likud, a majority of factions recommended Netanyahu for the premiership as he stands a better chance of cobbling together a coalition by an April 3 deadline.

But so far, Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to persuade his top rivals such as outgoing Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to join his cabinet, increasing the chances of a right-wing Israeli coalition likely to brake the sputtering Middle East peace talks.

Her first attempt to become Israel's second woman prime minister scuppered, Livni shot down Netanyahu's invitation for her Kadima party to enter his government, although she did agree to meet him for further talks.

"We didn't reach any agreement," Livni told reporters on Sunday. "There is an essential divergence and we have to clarify if there is a possible common path. We didn't make progress on any essential subjects," Livni said.

Anticipating the EU's concerns, she said the main difference centered on the principle of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Livni supports.

"On the essential subject for arriving at a (coalition) agreement -- that there should be two states for two peoples and a final accord with the Palestinians -- there is no agreement," said Livni.

Israeli's unstable political landscape

Ehud Barak

Ehud Barak said his moderate party would rather be in opposition

Netanyahu can almost certainly count on support from fellow right-wingers for a 65-bloc in the 120-member parliament, but is widely believed to favor a broad coalition that would have better survival chances. A right-wing alliance, he believes, would be unlikely to last a full term and would put Israel at odds with US President Barack Obama, who has vowed to vigorously pursue peace talks.

On Monday, Netanyahu met with the head of center-left Labour, outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak, to try to entice him into his cabinet by offering him the defense again as well as four other ministries, according to local media.

Barak rejected the offer, saying that his dovish party will serve as a "responsible, serious and constructive opposition."

Barak has consistently maintained that he would take Labour -- the veteran party that put up its worst-ever performance in the February 10 election with just 13 seats -- into opposition.

Israel's system of proportional representation usually forces premiers to secure coalition partners among the myriad of smaller parties, resulting in governments that are notoriously unstable.

Jane Paulick (dpa, AP, AFP)

Editor: Nick Amies

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