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Elections

Israel's Netanyahu asked to form government

Israel's president has formally asked incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a new government, following January's parliamentary election. The prime minister now has 28 days to form a coalition.

President Shimon Peres made his formal request to Netanyahu on Saturday after gaining the seal of approval from newly elected lawmakers. During two days of intense talks with all 12 parties that won seats in last month's election, 82 of the 120 members of the Knesset recommended Netanyahu as prime-minister designate.

"I have decided to charge Benjamin Netanyahu with forming the government," Peres said at a joint press conference with the prime minister at his official residence in Jerusalem. The president added that he hoped the process would soon be completed.

"Israel is in need of political and economic stability in order to be able to take necessary decisions on the serious subjects that are on the agenda," he said. "These challenges are numerous, serious and urgent."

In his short acceptance speech Netanyahu reiterated his pre-election pledge to prioritize efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear arms.

He also warned that the government should "deal with another deadly weapon being stockpiled near us and threatening our cities and civilians," in a thinly veiled reference to the alleged transfer of weapons from Syria to Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah mlitants.

But the incumbent prime minister offered reassurances that his new administration would be "committed to peace." In a gesture to Palestinians, he said he would seek to advance stalled peace talks.

"I call on Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] to come back to the negotiating table," Netanyahu said. "It's a shame, with every day that passes without us talking and trying to find a solution for peace for our two nations."

Negotiations begin

Coalition talks are expected to begin on Sunday in Tel Aviv. Netanyahu has until early March to form the coalition government, with the possibility of a 14 day extension if necessary.

Despite emerging as the biggest party in the January 22 election, his rightist Likud-Beitenu grouping lost 11 seats, taking just 31 in the 120-seat parliament. Netanyahu may therefore have to make significant concessions to prospective partners.

Speaking on Saturday he repeated that he would seek to form the "largest government possible," calling on opposition parties to join it.

The centrist Yesh Atid party, which came second in the elections, is expected to hold a key role in a new government. It's headed by former TV personality Yair Lapid who campaigned on a ticket of helping the middle class, compulsory military service for ultra-Orthodox Jews and the advancement of peace talks with the Palestinians.

In order to put together a parliamentary majority, Likud-Beitenu and Yesh Atid will need at least one more mid-sized partner. But the most likely candidates are staunchly against a number of Lapid's demands. Netanyahu will therefore likely take the full 28 days to put together the government. If he succeeds, he will then begin his third term as Israeli premier.

ccp/jm (AFP, dpa, Reuters)