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Israel's Sharon Asked to Form Government - 2003-02-09

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been asked to form another government, confirming the results of last month's national elections. But talks to find a new coalition appear headed for trouble.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav invited Mr. Sharon to his residence in Jerusalem to officially designate him prime minister.

Although Mr. Sharon's Likud Party was the overwhelming victor of the January 28 elections, by law it is the president who decides which political leader has the best chances of mustering a governing coalition.

The total number of seats won by Likud has risen to 40, following its merger last week with the Russian immigrant party, Yisrael B'Aliya. But the Likud still needs to in go into partnership with other factions to command a majority in the 120-seat parliament, known as the Knesset.

Likud officials plan to begin meeting Monday with members of other factions to discuss the formation of a new government.

Mr. Sharon wants the Labor Party, with 19 seats, to join the coalition, but the party has refused his appeals.

If Labor maintains this stance, Mr. Sharon's most likely coalition partners appear to be the centrist and secular Shinui Party, with 15 seats, and the National Religious Party, with six seats.

That would leave Mr. Sharon with a majority of only one seat in the parliament, although some parties have indicated they could give support from outside the government.

Following the national elections, Mr. Sharon said he was intent on forming a broad-based government, and some of his aides even threatened new elections if Labor did not join.

But during the weekend, the prime minister indicated he would satisfy himself with a much narrower coalition, saying his current ambition was to form a government that is "small in size, but with wide support" from the public.