By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
JERUSALEM, Feb. 11 -- Israeli voters delivered a split decision in national elections Tuesday, sparking competing claims by backers of opposition leader Binyamin 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 party, 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 U.S.-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 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 the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah in Lebanon and an Iranian government with nuclear ambitions.
Netanyahu, who held the prime ministership during the late 1990s, delivered a victory speech just after midnight Wednesday in which he told cheering supporters in Tel Aviv: "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 99 percent of polling stations counted by early Wednesday, Kadima had won an estimated 28 seats. Netanyahu's Likud garnered 27. Ultra-nationalist leader Avigdor Lieberman was projected to place third, with 16 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.
Lieberman and Barak, plus the leaders of several smaller parties, could now become kingmakers as Netanyahu and Livni hustle to assemble coalitions.
Roughly speaking, Likud and smaller parties to its right appeared to control about 65 of the 120 seats, while Kadima and parties to its left held approximately 46 seats. Parties representing Arabs with Israeli citizenship, which traditionally do not join the government, won about nine seats.
That 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 at Hebrew University, said the muddled results present an opportunity for a unity government involving all four of the major parties. Livni, he said, is 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 vote comes less than three years after Israelis gave Prime Minister Ehud Olmert a full term in office. Olmert, a Kadima member, had to step down last year amid a corruption scandal and has been serving as a caretaker prime minister since.
Peres, also a Kadima member, had given Livni the chance to form her own government in the fall, but she was unable to garner the necessary support. That does not bode well for her chances this time, since the outgoing Knesset was significantly to the left of the new one.
The dominant issue in the elections 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 firing of rockets from Gaza -- dozens have been launched since a cease-fire 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 in Gaza unfinished.
Meanwhile, Egypt continues to mediate negotiations aimed at producing a cease-fire of a year or more. Israel and Hamas are also pondering a possible exchange in which Hamas would free captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.
Under rainy skies, approximately 65 percent of eligible Israelis voted Tuesday, up slightly from the record low of 63 percent that was set in 2006.
Across Israel, voters suggested they were unenthusiastic about their task.
"I voted Kadima because it's the least of all evils. I wasn't excited about any of them," retired engineer Baruch Ziv, 78, said after casting his ballot in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevaseret Zion. "The politicians -- their ideals are gone. Money and that seat in parliament are more important."
Still, some said they were satisfied with their choices.
"I believe in Livni, and I want a woman as prime minister," Dorit Bodin, 39, said after voting at a school on a wind-swept hilltop overlooking Jerusalem. "She can bring a new attitude."
Netanyahu supporters tended to cite security as their main concern.
"We want a leader who is strong and who won't let America and Europe tell us how to behave," said Malka Levy, 66, who is retired from work in the archaeology department at the Israel Museum. "Since I was a child, I've known war. Now I want safety."
Lieberman was the surprise of the campaign, rising rapidly in the polls on the strength of his slogan, "Without loyalty, no citizenship." The cry was aimed at Israel's Arab citizens, who make up about 20 percent of Israel's population and who are suspected by some in the Jewish community of being unpatriotic. Lieberman has proposed that every citizen be required to pledge loyalty to the Jewish state.
Lieberman has been coy about whom he plans to support for prime minister, but his views are more in line with Netanyahu's than with Livni's. In a speech to supporters Tuesday night, Lieberman vowed that his party would "drive the agenda in the next government."
In Israel's Arab communities, many believed the candidate was deliberately stoking racist attitudes for electoral gain.
"He makes me worry about the situation here in Israel," Ezat Othman, a 38-year-old lawyer, said after voting in the Arab village of Abu Ghosh. "Since the war in Gaza, everyone's going to the right."
Special correspondents Samuel Sockol and Hillary Zaken in Jerusalem contributed to this report.