Image: Israeli Foreign Minister and leader of the Kadima party Tzipi Livni, left, and Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu
Bernat Armangue  /  AP
Israeli Foreign Minister and leader of the Kadima party Tzipi Livni, left, and Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, right, are seen during a meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday.
updated 2/23/2009 5:55:57 PM ET 2009-02-23T22:55:57

Israel's Labor Party leader declined an invitation Monday by Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu to join his government, the second rejection in two in the hawkish leader's efforts to form a moderate coalition.

Netanyahu could piece together a right-wing coalition of right-wingers who take a hard line against territorial concessions to the Palestinians and have serious disputes among themselves on religious issues. But the Likud Party leader hopes to bring moderates like Labor's Ehud Barak and centrist leader Tzipi Livni into his coalition to win international support and a stable parliamentary majority.

Barak said after meeting Netanyahu that his dovish party will serve as a "responsible, serious and constructive opposition."

The night before, Livni said she and Netanyahu were still at odds over efforts to make peace with the Palestinians.

"We didn't reach any agreement. There are deep disagreements on this issue," she said. "This evening did not progress us on the core issues in a way that we can talk about a joint path."

Netanyahu said he and Livni found many points of agreement and their disagreement could be "overcome with goodwill." He did not give details of the meeting.

"If we want to find what unites us, it is possible and it is necessary at times like these," he said.

Both said they agreed to meet again soon.

Six weeks to form coalition
In this month's election, Kadima won 28 seats in the 120-seat parliament — just one more than Likud. However, President Shimon Peres appointed Netanyahu on Friday to form the next government because he has the support of a majority of the elected lawmakers. Netanyahu, a former prime minister, has six weeks to do so.

Netanyahu is expected to make Kadima an offer that would include allowing Livni to remain as foreign minister.

Livni has said she will join only if Netanyahu agrees to a "rotation" arrangement whereby each would serve as prime minister for half of the government's four-year term. Netanyahu rejects the proposal.

A hard-line government might harm Israel's ties with President Barack Obama's administration, which has promised to make pursuing Mideast peace a priority.

Netanyahu tried to calm such concerns Sunday.

"I intend and expect to cooperate with the Obama administration and to try to advance the common goals of peace, security and prosperity for us and our neighbors," Netanyahu told reporters on his way into the meeting with Livni. "I hope to do so in a unity government."

Speaking to Kadima lawmakers Sunday, Livni seemed eager to assume the role of opposition leader.

"The choice is between hope and despair, between promoting and implementing the vision of two states for two peoples and between a lack of direction in that field," she said. If Kadima compromised its platform to join the government, she added, it would be "betraying the trust of the public."

Ehud Olmert, Israel's outgoing prime minister, continues in a caretaker role until Netanyahu can form a new ruling coalition.

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