|Tzipi Livni, the Kadima candidate, had a narrow lead over Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party early today. But the shift in Israel's parliament was to the right, which could make it difficult for Livni to build the coalition she would need to govern. (Bernat Armangue/Associated Press)|
Israeli parties scramble for power after vote
Jockeying begins after close tally Prime minister post unresolved
JERUSALEM - Israeli voters yesterday delivered a split decision in national elections, sparking competing claims by backers of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni over who will be the next prime minister.
Voters appeared to give Livni's Kadima Party, which favors negotiations with the Palestinians, a slight and unexpected edge over Netanyahu's Likud, which has been critical of peace talks, according to nearly complete returns and exit polls.
But the overall shift in Israel's parliament, the Knesset, was sharply to the right. That could make it difficult for Livni to build the coalition she would need to govern, particularly if she intends to pursue US-backed talks aimed at creating a Palestinian state.
Both candidates claimed victory, and the political jockeying was expected to intensify in the coming days.
It will fall to President Shimon Peres to decide who gets first crack at forming a government - a tricky task in Israel's fractious political culture. Traditionally, the president chooses the party that receives the most seats in the 120-member Israeli parliament, but he is not obligated to do so. Peres will now consult with all the parties to determine who has the best chance of creating a stable government.
The question of who will lead Israel could linger for weeks or more at a time when the nation faces threats from Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and an Iranian government with nuclear ambitions.
Netanyahu, who held the prime ministership during the late 1990s, delivered a victory speech early this morning in which he told cheering supporters in Tel Aviv that "the people of Israel have spoken clearly and sharply. The national camp, headed by the Likud, has won a clear victory."
Netanyahu signaled he intended to lead a coalition of parties that, like his own, take a hawkish stance toward Iran and believe that the creation of a Palestinian state would present a threat to Israeli security.
Livni, who would be Israel's first female prime minister since Golda Meir led the country more than three decades ago, served as lead negotiator during last year's unsuccessful negotiations with the Palestinians. Livni has favored continued efforts toward reaching a deal.
"Today the nation chose Kadima," an energetic Livni declared to a crowd of backers, who serenaded her with chants of "the next prime minister."
Livni said she would attempt to form a national unity government that includes parties across the political spectrum, including Likud.
With votes from 98 percent of polling stations counted by early this morning, Kadima had won an estimated 28 seats in the 120-member Israeli parliament. Netanyahu's Likud garnered 27. Ultra-nationalist leader Avigdor Lieberman was projected to place third, with 15 seats. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, head of the center-left Labor party that once dominated Israeli politics, was forecast to drop to fourth at 13 seats.
Roughly speaking, Likud and smaller parties to its right appeared to control about 64 seats while Kadima and parties to its left held approximately 47 seats. Parties representing Arabs with Israeli citizenship, which traditionally do not join the government, won about 9 seats.
That breakdown suggests Livni would have to bring in at least one party that opposes land-for-peace talks with the Palestinians if she wants to govern.
Itzhak Galnoor, a political scientist with Hebrew University, said the muddled results present an opportunity for a unity government involving all four of the major parties. Livni, he said, was well positioned to lead it. "Because she is in the center, she could form a coalition with parties on the right and parties on the left," he said. "But that's too logical, so it probably won't happen."
Although Netanyahu had held a sizable lead for months, Livni closed the gap in the campaign's final days.
Livni, 50, presented herself as a fresh alternative and campaigned vigorously among young voters. Netanyahu, 59, pushed the idea that he is a strong and steady hand at a time when Israel faces grave security threats.
The dominant issue in the election was security. Israel's 22-day war in Gaza cut into the campaign, leaving only a few weeks for the candidates to deliver their messages to voters.
The war was widely popular in Israel, and Livni was one of its three primary architects.
But it has not stopped the rocket fire from Gaza - dozens have been fired since a ceasefire took effect last month - and Hamas retains a firm grip on power in the strip.
Netanyahu vowed during the campaign to destroy Hamas, saying the current government had left the job there unfinished.