Far-right Isreali politician Avigdor Lieberman endorsed Benjamin Netanyahu for Israeli prime minister on Thursday, all but guaranteeing that the US-educated hawk will be the country's next leader.
Lieberman emerged as kingmaker when Netanyahu's Likud and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's Kadima Party, which leads the outgoing government, came out of the Febuarary 10 election deadlocked and Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party placed third.
On Thursday, Lieberman advised President Shimon Peres to call on Netanyahu to head a government with Kadima and Yisrael Beitenu as partners but Livni swiftly dismissed the idea.
"Today the foundations were laid for an extremist right-wing government under the leadership of Netanyahu," Livni's office quoted her as telling a meeting of Kadima members. "That is not our way and there is nothing for us in such a government...We must be an alternative of hope and go into opposition."
A hardline government could freeze peace talks with the Palestinians, hurt Israel's standing in the world and place it on a possible collision course with President Barack Obama, who has said Mideast peacemaking will be a top priority of his administration. Lieberman made his endorsement in a meeting with Peres, who is holding consultations with political parties before choosing a candidate to form a government. If Peres names Netanyahu, then Netanyahu will have six weeks to work out a deal with other parties to create a coalition.
"We need a wide government with the three big parties, Likud, Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu," Lieberman said. "Netanyahu will lead the government but it will be a government of Netanyahu and Livni together."
Livni has indicated in the past that she would join a government with Netanyahu if the premiership rotates between them. So far, Netanyahu has ruled that out and in a speech in Jerusalem Thursday so did Lieberman.
"I don't see any possibility for any (rotation) in the prime minister," he told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "Netanyahu must be prime minister." Lieberman has raised eyebrows around the world with his calls to make members of Israel's Arab minority swear loyalty to the state or lose their citizenship. Analysts say that in reality there is little chance of such a move winning a parliamentary majority and even if it did it would likely be struck down by the country's Supreme Court.
Netanyahu, a critic of peace talks with the Palestinians in their current form, has said he would turn to his "natural" allies among the religious and nationalist parties in parliament. But he has said he also hopes to bring in more centrist parties to create a wide coalition with broad national consensus.
Kadima edged out Likud in the election, capturing 28 seats compared to 27 for Likud. But in the 120-seat parliament, Likud is in a better position to put together a coalition because of gains by Lieberman and other hard-line parties. It could be several weeks before a coalition is finally formed.
Peres began his political consultations with Likud and Kadima representatives on Wednesday. He was meeting representatives of the 10 other elected parties on Thursday to hear their choice for prime minister.
If neither Netanyahu nor Livni garner the support of a majority, Peres is expected to encourage the two to share the premiership. However, after Lieberman's endorsement of Netanyahu, a rotation of the prime minister's job appears unlikely, and Netanyahu is poised to return to Israel's top post a decade after Labor's Ehud Barak pushed him out in a national election.