Polls Show Even Split Between Israeli Blocs

(Sebastian Scheiner - AP)
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By Matti Friedman
Associated Press
Tuesday, October 28, 2008

JERUSALEM, Oct. 27 -- Israel moved closer Monday to a bruising election campaign that will decide the future of peace talks, as polls showed the centrist foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, in a surprisingly close race with hard-line opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu.

Neither of Israel's two leading political parties would have enough seats to form a government on its own, according to the surveys, which also showed an even split between the country's hawkish and center-left blocs. That signals more deadlock in peacemaking with Syria and the Palestinians.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad expressed concern Monday that precious time was running out, "although I still have hope that we can find a solution through negotiation."

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were relaunched nearly a year ago at a U.S.-hosted summit, where Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas set a December 2008 target for clinching a final accord. But both leaders have since acknowledged there will be no deal by year's end.

President Shimon Peres began the countdown to new elections at the opening of the winter session of parliament, a day after Livni gave up on attempts to form a new governing coalition. Peres said elections were inevitable.

Parliament now has three weeks to dissolve itself. The vote, Israel's third in six years, would take place three months later.

Olmert, who is being forced from office by a series of corruption investigations, said he would remain as caretaker prime minister in the meantime.

Israel's ceremonial president is meant to be a unifying figure in this divided country, and Peres used the occasion to appeal to the parties to work together. "The coming elections can raise Israel up and release it from its various weaknesses," he said.

But almost immediately, signs of division were evident.

Speaking to the same session, Netanyahu unofficially launched his campaign by staking out hard-line positions on peace talks with Syria and the Palestinians.

"We will not negotiate over Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish people for the past 3,000 years. I didn't do it in the past and I won't do it in the future," said Netanyahu, who was prime minister in the late 1990s.

The Palestinians want the West Bank as part of an independent state, with east Jerusalem as their capital. Israel captured both areas in the 1967 war. Palestinians also want those people who were made refugees following Israel's establishment, and their descendants, to be allowed to return to lost properties.

Livni, who has been Israel's chief peace negotiator with the Palestinians over the past year, says Israel must find a settlement to all outstanding issues, including borders, Jerusalem and the refugees.

Netanyahu's Likud party had a poor showing in the last vote and holds 12 of parliament's 120 seats. The new polls show Likud more than doubling its strength, while Livni's Kadima holds steady.

A Dahaf Research Institute poll showed Livni's Kadima party winning 29 seats, the number it has now, and Netanyahu's Likud taking 26 seats if elections were held today.

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