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Netanyahu asks rival Livni to join government

JERUSALEM - JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli prime minister has asked moderate opposition leader Tzipi Livni to join his government — a move that could boost efforts to restart negotiations with the Palestinians if she accepts or rip apart her rival party if she refuses.

The offer, made late Thursday after a Cabinet meeting, came amid reports that Benjamin Netanyahu was trying to persuade lawmakers from Livni's Kadima party to bolt to his Likud. On Friday, one lawmaker announced she would join Likud if Livni rejected the offer.

Livni did not turn down the offer.

"I'm not closing the door," she said. If the offer is serious, Livni said, she wants to explore how far Netanyahu is willing to go in negotiations with the Palestinians.

However, she also said she wouldn't be part of a maneuver to split Kadima, and earlier this week accused Netanyahu of trying to break up her party by courting its lawmakers.

Livni, a former foreign minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians, refused to join Netanyahu's hardline government in March because he would not embrace the notion of a Palestinian statehood at the time.

Netanyahu has since endorsed the idea, albeit with stipulations the Palestinians have rejected, such as continued Israeli control over east Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as the capital of their future state.

He also recently announced a slowdown in West Bank settlement construction, bucking the hawkish Jewish settlers who form an important component of support.

The Haaretz newspaper on Friday quoted Netanyahu as saying that if he can't coax Livni to join, "I'll take at least part of Kadima."

Kadima's presence in the coalition could help to entice the Palestinians to resume negotiations. So far, they have refused to do so, distrustful of Netanyahu's true intentions and angry that his settlement slowdown has been partial and does not include east Jerusalem.

It could also dilute the power of the hardline parties that currently dominate the coalition, a prospect that would be welcomed internationally.

A broad coalition could also give Netanyahu added backing as he decides what to do about Iran's nuclear ambitions. Israel insists that Tehran is lying when it says it isn't developing bomb technology and has not ruled out a military strike against Iran's nuclear program.

While Netanyahu's gestures toward the Palestinians might suggest that he and Livni have more to talk about than before, political commentators on Friday didn't think she'd take him up on his offer.

It's more likely Netanyahu's real aim is to dismantle Kadima, the largest party in parliament with 28 of 120 seats, they said.

Though there is discontent with Livni's leadership inside Kadima, with former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz making no secret of his desire to unseat her and others accusing her of an autocratic style, there were no immediate signs a mass exodus was in the offing.

"Not because of confidence in Kadima's future, but because there are no great promises outside," Nahum Barnea wrote in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper.


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