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ISRAEL: Down to the wire

You didn't think this would be easy, did you?

Weeks of negotiations between Prime Minister-designate Tzipi Livni and the powerful ultra-Orthodox Shas Party seemingly collapsed Friday afternoon when Shas announced it would not join Livni in a coalition government.

Shas leaders say their decision is final -- which in Israeli political terms means there's still a 50-50 chance this is all just a last-minute bit of brinksmanship and Shas will join up after all.

Either way it should all come to a head on Sunday, the date Livni has set for potential coalition partners to make up their minds. Livni technically has until Nov. 3 to form a coalition, but she has set her own deadline a week early. After Friday's Shas announcement, Livni's spokesman said her ultimatum was unchanged.

Livni will meet Sunday with President Shimon Peres and inform him whether her coalition-building efforts were successful. Failure would give Peres the choice between calling for national elections or asking another Israeli politician to try and form a viable government.

Stay tuned...

-- Ashraf Khalil In Jerusalem

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