February 13th, 2009
By Matthew Kalman
Israel was in political deadlock last night after the final votes counted from Tuesday's general election failed to change the preliminary results.
Officials confirmed that Tzipi Livni's centreist Kadima had finished as the largest party with 28 seats in parliament, but put Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud in pole position to become prime minister, even though he won only 27 seats.
Despite her being leader of the party which took most seats, Livni faces an uphill battle to form a coalition government under Israel's proportional representation system in which she must cobble together at least 61 votes in Israel's 120-seat Knesset parliament. At the moment, Livni's centre-left-Arab bloc has only 55 seats, while Netanyahu believes he has the support of at least 65 right-religious party seats.
Livni is hoping that Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the third-placed Israel Is Our Home Party, will choose her over Netanyahu.
Lieberman, a former Russian nightclub bouncer and one-time Netanyahu aide, was confirmed with 15 seats and effectively holds the balance of power.
Lieberman is committed to introducing civil marriage and divorce – a policy that Netanyahu's religious allies reject outright. He could yet upset Netanyahu's calculations and throw his lot in with Livni.
All 12 party leaders who won Knesset seats will be consulted by President Shimon Peres beginning next Wednesday, when the results are officially published. The president will take soundings and then ask whoever he thinks most likely to be able to form a government to do so.
Lieberman said yesterday he had decided who to recommend as prime minister to Peres, but would not reveal his choice.
Netanyahu, who grabbed the initiative with a tub-thumping victory speech only three hours after the polls closed on Tuesday, continued to pile the pressure on Livni to join a unity government under his leadership. He offered her two of the three top spots in a coalition, which means she would stay on in the key post of foreign minister.
'I plan to create a wide coalition and I will tell the other parties, "if you're worried about national interest, lay aside your political interests and join a government under my leadership",' he told the Haaretz newspaper.
Israeli commentators said Netanyahu hoped that Livni would provide an acceptable international façade for what would effectively be a right-wing government implacably opposed to creating a Palestinian state and unable to find common voice with the new peace-seeking Obama administration in Washington.
But a senior Kadima minister said Livni might prefer to stay out of government than become Netanyahu's junior partner or fig leaf.
'We will join a Netanyahu government only if it is not an extreme right-wing government,' said Kadima's Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit. 'We are not afraid to sit in the opposition.'
The party positions remained unchanged after tallying the last few thousand votes of soldiers, the disabled, prisoners, diplomats and people in hospital. They voted at 2,361 special ballot boxes in double-sealed envelopes to prevent tampering.
Observers had expected the soldiers' votes to gain another seat for Netanyahu and his allies, but many soldiers spoiled their ballot papers by writing in the name of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped in 2006 by Hamas.