Israel election looms as religious party backs out of coalition talks
Ultra-Orthodox party Shas will only join Tzipi Livni's coalition if its key demands are met
- Friday October 24 2008 14.18 BST
Israel moved closer to an early general election today when a key ultra-Orthodox party refused to join a new coalition government that the prime minister designate, Tzipi Livni, has spent weeks trying to put together.
The decision by Shas, a rightwing party that represents religious Jews from non-European backgrounds, means Livni faces the prospect of either forming a slim, weak coalition or failing outright, which would mean an election early next year. Livni said a decision would be reached by Sunday.
Livni, the foreign minister, narrowly won the leadership of her ruling party, Kadima, in an internal vote in mid-September. She was given six weeks to persuade others to join her in a coalition that needed at least 61 votes of approval in the 120-seat Knesset. She has secured the support of the Labour party, giving her a combined 48 seats, and can expect the support of at least one other small party, but had still hoped for the 12 crucial seats of Shas to form a clear majority.
The negotiations were difficult from the start. Shas, as expected, made two key demands: a substantial increase in child allowances, which would benefit its supporters who tend to have larger, poorer families, and a promise that in any peace negotiations with the Palestinians the Israeli government would not agree to divide Jerusalem. Shas had reportedly asked for a 1bon shekels (£160m) in child allowances. Livni offered less money but proposed extending the jurisdiction of rabbinical courts in the hope of winning the party's favour.
The party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, met with his advisers and decided to pull out of the coalition talks.
"Throughout the entire coalition negotiations, Shas did not ask for treats, titles or any political upgrade," the party said in a statement. "Shas asked for real aid for the Israeli society's disadvantaged population and sought to protect Jerusalem. We cannot ignore the difficulties and hardship these days, when Israel has reached the first place in poverty among the developed countries."
The Shas decision at first appeared to be final, but Eli Yishai, the party leader, went on Israel Radio and hinted a deal could still be done. He said it was in Kadima's hands. "If they don't meet our demands, we won't be able to join," he said.
A spokesman for Livni said she was sticking to her deadline of Sunday to conclude an agreement. The autumn session of the Knesset begins on Monday and she had hoped to address the parliament as prime minister and head of a new coalition.
If the Shas decision is final, Livni could still form a coalition with other smaller parties, including the leftwing Meretz party, which has five seats, the Pensioners party, with four seats, or United Torah Judaism, an ultra-Orthodox party with six seats.
Most political observers now say that at best she can hope for a slim coalition of 60 seats, which would put her at the head of a weak government. To win Knesset approval she would have to persuade other MPs to vote for the coalition without joining it.
If she fails, the president, Shimon Peres, will probably call an election for early next year. Livni had hoped to avoid an early vote with opinion polls still forecasting a win for Benjamin Netanyahu's opposition Likud party.