Israel's election on Tuesday ended in a near draw, with the two front runners centrist Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni and hawkish Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu each claiming victory. With nearly all votes counted, Livni's party won 28 Knesset seats, and Netanyahu's 27 seats, both falling well short of a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
The result could be the worst possible outcome for Israel, guaranteeing weeks of political turmoil ahead and stalling any attempts by U.S. President Barack Obama's Administration to restart Middle East peace talks. Whoever comes to power in Israel is likely to be tugged in different directions by combative coalition partners. In the past, smaller parties have held governments of both the right and the left hostage to their narrow, self-serving agendas. (See pictures of heartbreak in the Middle East.)
As the single largest party, Kadima will try to approach President Shimon Peres next week for permission to form what Livni calls a "national unity government that would be founded on the large parties in Israel from both Kadima's left and right." It is a logical option. But Livni lacks support among the other parties. For starters, she needs to coax Netanyahu to join her. The two parties actually share many of the same policies and ideologies Kadima broke away from Likud and drifted to the center and, in theory, their combined strength could usher in a solid, center-right government. But the mutual antagonism of both leaders makes an accommodation all but impossible. Netanyahu, for example, refused to debate with Livni in public, and both rivals launched smear attacks against each other.
Netanyahu, a former Prime Minister, insists that he should be Israel's next Premier, not Livni. He may be right. Political analysts say the Likud leader stands a far better chance of stitching together a right-wing coalition with small religious groups and Yisrael Beitenu, a nationalist, anti-Arab party that was the surprise in this election. At the last poll, in 2006, Yisrael Beitenu won just 11 seats. Yesterday it won 15, knocking the venerable Labor Party, which picked up 13 seats, into fourth place.
With Kadima and Likud both far short of a majority in the Knesset, Yisrael Beitenu's controversial leader, Avigdor Lieberman, has emerged as a key power broker. Speaking to his party supporters at midnight as votes were being tallied, Lieberman indicated that his natural inclination is to side with Netanyahu. "We want a right-wing government," he said flatly. Lieberman also took a swing at the outgoing Kadima-led government for entering into Egyptian-brokered cease-fire talks with Gaza's Islamic militants, Hamas. "We will not have direct or indirect negotiations with Hamas nor a cease-fire," he said, adding that he would join any government that had as its objective "the defeat of Hamas." (See pictures of Israeli soldiers in Gaza.)
Political commentators and pollsters say Israelis shifted back to the right out of dissatisfaction over the failure of peace talks with the Palestinians and a lingering sense that the Gaza war ended too soon, without crushing Hamas militants or ending their rocket fire into southern Israel.
The rightward tilt is a blow to President Obama's hopes that a new Israeli government might be willing to make peace with the Palestinians and various Arab neighbors. Netanyahu and Lieberman are pushing for the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which Palestinians say is a main obstacle to peace, and they are adamant that Israel should hang on to the Golan Heights, which was seized from Syria in the 1967 war. Netanyahu and Lieberman also say the army ought to return to Gaza and wipe out Hamas. During the campaign, Netanyahu said, "There will be no alternative but to bring down the regime of Hamas, a terrorist organization pledged to our destruction. Ultimately, Israel cannot tolerate an Iranian base right next to its cities."
Livni's bid to become Israel's first female Premier since Golda Meir in the 1970s looks increasingly hopeless. Spurned by Netanyahu, she will turn left to Labor and other smaller parties but the only way she can make the numbers add up to a 61-seat majority is if she entices Lieberman to join her. The drawback is that if she succeeds, Labor and the leftist parties will leave in disgust. The Arab parties, which have a total of 11 seats, are also unlikely to join a Livni-led coalition because they remain angry over the Gaza invasion. Israeli Arabs voted in big numbers after Lieberman insisted that all Israeli Arabs take a loyalty oath or else lose their citizenship. Jamal Zahalka, leader of the Arab party Balad, said Israel's assault in Gaza also rallied voters. "The Zionist parties all supported what happened in Gaza, so Arab voters reacted by voting for us and not the Zionist parties."
Whoever Peres picks to form a new government and it will probably be Netanyahu that person will have 42 days to glue together a coalition. Most likely, the bartering will drag on for weeks, with outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert staying on as caretaker, probably until early April. Before the voting, Israelis said they wanted a strong leader. What they have instead is a prolonged period of political disarray.
With reporting by Jamil Hamad / Bethlehem and Aaron J. Klein / Jerusalem