Peace Prospects Dim as Israeli Elections Loom

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Alon Ron / Reuters

Israel's Foreign Minister and Prime Minister-designate Tzipi Livni (L) and Speaker of the Parliament Dalia Itzik attend a Kadima party gathering in Petah Tikva near Tel Aviv.

The White House's hope of reaching a peace accord between the Israelis and the Palestinians suffered a fatal blow on Sunday when Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister and leader of the governing Kadima party, informed President Shimon Peres that she was unable to stitch together a new ruling coalition.

Now Israel faces months of political tumult in the run-up to early elections, probably in mid-February. During this season of uncertainty, it is extremely unlikely that caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will be able to advance the peace proposals before President George W. Bush vacates the White House in January.

Olmert has tumbled into disgrace over allegations of bribery and corruption, and Livni was bidding to replace him as prime minister. She had several months to shore up support from the smaller parties that would give a new Kadima-led coalition a 61-seat majority in the country's Knesset.

But on Sunday Livni, a onetime Mossad agent, conceded defeat, claiming she refused to be "blackmailed" by the demands of the fringe religious parties she was trying to woo. The religious parties, she said, were making "economically and diplomatically illegitimate demands." The ultra-orthodox Shas party was charging a high fee: they want Livni to increase child allowances for large religious families and remove the city of Jerusalem from peace negotiations with the Palestinians. "I refuse to pawn Israel's future for the Prime Minister's seat," she said after meeting Peres. "The public is sick of politicking."

The president will first consult with other party leaders in the next few days before he officially calls for early elections. Polls show that ex-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hawkish Likud party has an edge over Livni's Kadima party. But Livni's advisers say that her refusal to give in to the "extortionate" demands of Shas and the other fringe parties could sway voters to her side. For years, Israel's big political parties have been unable to win solid majorities and, as a result, have found themselves at the mercy of the smaller parties' whims. Many Israelis now agree to a two-state solution with the Palestinians, and they may see Livni — the chief Israeli negotiator in peace talks and seen by Washington as a straight-shooter — as being more capable of hammering out a deal than the hawkish Netanyahu.

The Bush Administration's so-called peace road map was already falling to pieces, and the Palestinians are now saying that they might as well go home and wait for Israeli elections to finish and for a new prime minister to take charge. By then, Bush will have packed his bags and left the White House, leaving the challenge to either President McCain or Obama.