SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Thursday, February 12th, 2009
Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Jerusalem - Israel appears headed for another period of political uncertainty bordering on paralysis after a close-fought general election failed to produce a clear winner.
With only a few thousands soldiers' and diplomats' absentee ballots left to be counted today, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's center-right Kadima Party won the most seats in parliament, but former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud appeared to have the best chance of forming a governing coalition.
"Tzipi Livni has a very weak, if not negligible chance to form a government under her leadership," said Avi Diskin, professor of political science at the Hebrew University. "The chances are that a government will be formed led by the Likud, and Kadima may join it. The sooner Tzipi Livni makes that decision, the greater the returns for her and for Kadima."
But both Livni and Netanyahu have claimed victory, beginning talks with possible coalition partners.
"The people chose me in droves," Livni said Tuesday. "I feel a great responsibility to translate the power that has been given to me into action, to advance the country and to unify the people."
"The Israeli people have spoken sharp and clear. The nationalist camp, headed by Likud has won a clear majority," said Netanyahu. "With God's help, I will stand at the head of the next government."
It could take weeks
Once the official results are published on Wednesday, President Shimon Peres will begin consultations with party leaders before choosing either Livni or Netanyahu to form a government. Peres has indicated that he will announce his selection by Feb. 20. According to Israeli law, the president selects as prime minister the parliamentary member with the best chance of forming a viable coalition government. His choice then has up to six weeks to win a parliamentary vote of confidence.
With all civilian votes counted, Kadima won 28 parliamentary seats, followed by Likud with 27 and the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) with 15. In fourth place, the liberal Labor Party - for decades Israel's ruling party - recorded its worst ever result with just 13 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel's parliament. Labor's traditional left-wing partner, Meretz, eked out just three seats.
On the other hand, right-wing and religious parties did well, winning 65 seats in contrast to 55 seats for Kadima, and center-left and Arab parties. The absentee ballots yet to be counted are expected to strengthen the rightist parties by one or two seats.
The uncertain result of Tuesday's election has revived calls for an overhaul of Israel's proportional representation system, which typically fails to produce stable governments. David Horovitz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, has called it "unworkable" and in need of "urgent electoral reform."
Livni, 50, who hopes to become Israel's first female prime minister since Golda Meir (1969-1974), called on Netanyahu to join a unity government under her leadership and hurried to meet with Avigdor Lieberman, the tough-talking leader of Yisrael Beiteinu who has emerged as a kingmaker and is expected to support Netanyahu.
'A clear majority'
"We want a nationalist government. We want a right-wing government," Lieberman told delighted supporters Wednesday. "The nationalist camp has won a clear majority. The rightist bloc has won a clear majority. I am pleased that we hold the key. And this key also brings with it a responsibility. And this decision will not be at all easy," he said, referring to deep divisions over religious policy with the ultraorthodox Shas party, which supports Netanyahu.
Lieberman has been accused of racism over his controversial proposals to redraw Israel's borders to push out heavily Arab areas and mandate Israel's 1.1 million Arab residents to swear loyalty to the state and perform national service or lose their right to vote and hold office. But his largely Russian constituency appears to be most concerned about ending the religious monopoly on marriage and divorce - Israel does not recognize civil marriage or divorce - a policy that Livni endorses but would be an anathema to Netanyahu and his Shas supporters.
Netanyahu's former chief of staff, Lieberman has whittled way at Likud's share of the conservative vote and now threatens to replace his ex-boss as undisputed leader of the right if he throws in with Livni's Kadima Party.
'The fact is, we won'
Knesset member Meir Shetreet, who left the Likud to help form Kadima three years ago, said his party would not join a Netanyahu-led government that would refuse to advance the peace process. Netanyahu is opposed to the creation of an independent Palestinian state, and wants to maintain Israeli control over the Jordan Valley and expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
"The fact is, we won. The last thing the country needs is a right-wing government that will bring about a freeze in the entire peace process and social, economic and diplomatic deterioration," said Shetreet.
Meanwhile, Palestinian reaction has been one of alarm at Israel's rightward shift.
In Gaza, Hamas officials accused Israel of electing "a troika of terrorists."
In the West Bank, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said "the Israeli public has voted for paralysis. I don't see how any coalition established after these elections will be able to fulfill the necessary conditions for peace."
Until a new government is in place, however, Ehud Olmert remains prime minister.
Before he leaves office, Olmert is expected to push through an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire deal with Hamas and broker a controversial exchange of 400 Hamas prisoners in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured in 2006.