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Babylon & Beyond

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ISRAEL: Livni enters the endgame

Now it gets serious.

As expected, Prime Minister-designate Tzipi Livni formally asked President Shimon Peres on Monday  for a two-week extension of her deadline to form a new government. The extra 14 days, in addition to the 28 days since she narrowly won her Kadima Party primary, is a routine step and was quickly granted.

Livni To use a sports analogy, the passing of the original one month-deadline marked the end of the regular season for the Israeli national sport of governing coalition haggling. Now the playoffs begin.

Livni's negotiations with other Israeli parties have proceeded at a steady but leisurely pace, party because of a solid month of Jewish holidays and partly because everyone involved knew the real deadline is Nov. 3.

She did manage to strike a  deal with Labor Party chief and Defense Minister Ehud Barak -- one which, according to local media reports, grants Barak sweeping influence and the position of "the most senior minister after the Prime Minister."

Together, Labor and Kadima have about 50 seats in the Israeli Knesset, or parliament. That's still short of the 61 yes votes Livni will need from the 120-member Knesset to legally govern.

Players in the race to fill those empty seats include the ultra-orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism  parties and the leftist Meretz Party. Shas is the largest of them with 12 seats, and the religious party's demands center on millions of dollars in welfare payments that favor larger ultra-Orthodox families and a government pledge not to negotiate over dividing Jerusalem.   

Shas Chairman Eli Yishai told the Ma’ariv newspaper over the weekend that he would demand Livni put her Jerusalem commitment in writing as a condition for his party’s joining the government.

Talks are continuing daily and the next week should be dramatic for politics junkies. There are no more extensions coming.

Should Livni fail, it will likely mean new national elections early next year, but Peres would be within his rights to assign another Knesset member the task of forming a government.

-- Ashraf Khalil in Jerusalem

P.S. Get news from the Middle East in your mailbox every day. The Los Angeles Times distributes a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, as well as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can subscribe by logging in at the website here, clicking on the box for "L.A. Times updates" and then clicking on the "World: Mideast" box.

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