Netanyahu gets two more weeks to form Israel coalition

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israeli President Shimon Peres on Saturday gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a two-week extension to form a new coalition government, after he failed to do so in an initial four-week period.

"I am giving you another two weeks, by law, to complete the task of forming the government," Peres told Netanyahu during a televised statement at the presidential residence.

After his Likud-Beitenu list emerged as the largest party in a Jan 22 election, winning 31 of the Knesset's 120 seats, Netanyahu was on Feb 2 tasked with forming a coalition.

Mr Peres afforded him the initial 28 days mandated by law for the task. If the additional fortnight passes without Mr Netanyahu managing to form a coalition government, Mr Peres will then have to ask a different member of parliament to try to form a government.

The premier was reportedly leaning towards forging a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties as well as Yesh Atid, which came second in the vote, and with the far-right Jewish Home, which came fourth.

But both Yesh Atid and Jewish Home were against concessions to the ultra-Orthodox parties Mr Netanyahu was willing to offer on the contentious issue of army and civilian service, and formed a pact that neither party would enter a coalition without the other.

Before meeting Mr Peres, Mr Netanyahu implicitly blamed the two parties for his failure to form the coalition, saying that the ultra-Orthodox were open to changes in joining the army and civilian service, but were being blacklisted.

"The reason I haven't succeeded in forming a coalition is simply because there are boycotts," he said. "There is a boycott of a public in Israel, and that is against my principles.

"Those who should understand it more than anyone else are the settlers in the Judaea and Samaria," he said, using the biblical term for the West Bank, "who undergo daily boycotts." Jewish Home is the main party representing settlers.

Mr Yair Lapid, head of the 19-seat Yesh Atid, rejected Mr Netanyahu's allegations.

"They say we rule out the ultra-Orthodox. That is obviously false. We do not rule out or boycott any person, and certainly don't hate anyone," he wrote on Facebook.

"Yesh Atid's role is to return Israeli society's focus to issues such as education, helping small business, reducing the price of homes and the cost of living.

"This is a new, different civilian agenda with which most Israelis agree, but the ultra-Orthodox parties oppose." Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett accused Mr Netanyahu of initially boycotting his party because it objects to peace talks, which forced him to strike the pact with Lapid.

"We're not boycotting any party, not Shas nor United Torah Judaism," he wrote on the Facebook page of the two ultra-Orthodox parties.

"The only ones who imposed a boycott are the Likud on us, but that is behind us. I call on the prime minister to form a government," he wrote. "Once he decides on it, it will be complete in a day." Mr Netanyahu had so far managed to strike a deal only with the centrist HaTnuah, which won six seats, to join his nascent coalition.

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