By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 12, 2009
JERUSALEM, Feb. 11 -- Opposition candidate Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni began what could be an intense and prolonged campaign to woo smaller parties Wednesday, as each tries to build a coalition government after voters split over who should lead Israel.
Although Livni's Kadima party apparently received slightly more votes than Netanyahu's Likud, analysts said Wednesday that the electoral math favors Netanyahu.
His party and others that are critical of or opposed to peace talks with the Palestinians won 65 of the 120 seats in the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, according to nearly complete election returns. Likud more than doubled the number of seats it controls, reflecting a broad shift in the Israeli electorate toward a harder line against the Palestinians.
Livni, who favors continuing U.S.-backed peace negotiations with the Palestinians, must first peel away parties from the right-wing bloc in order to assemble a parliamentary majority of 61 seats.
"Bibi's in the driver's seat, and she's trying to pull the wheels off," said Peter Medding, a political science professor at Hebrew University, using Netanyahu's nickname.
The focus of Livni's efforts is ultranationalist leader Avigdor Lieberman, who surged into third place in Tuesday's vote after running a campaign that focused on questioning the patriotism of Israel's Arab citizens, about a fifth of the population. Lieberman, a Moldovan who came to Israel in the 1970s and has a strong base among immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are intent on promoting Israel's security, has proposed that all Israelis be forced to take a loyalty oath to the Jewish state.
Livni and Netanyahu met separately with Lieberman on Wednesday. Analysts said both would offer him incentives, including key government posts, to try to secure his backing. While Lieberman has hinted that he will support Netanyahu's vision of a "national government," he has been coy about his ultimate intentions, placing him in a powerful bargaining position.
Uzi Landau, Lieberman's deputy, said in an interview Wednesday that his party's priority in dealing with the Palestinians is "to dismantle Hamas," which Israel and the United States consider a terrorist organization, and that negotiations with the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority "cannot continue on the current basis." Both positions track with Netanyahu's, and the two parties also agree on a hawkish stance toward Iran.
But other party members said they were open to offers from Livni, who was one of three primary architects of a 22-day war in Gaza that killed hundreds of Hamas fighters but stopped short of ousting the Islamist movement from power.
Lieberman's party, Yisrael Beitenu, won 15 seats in Tuesday's vote. If he joins a coalition with Livni's Kadima, it could help her to reach 61 seats but would not be enough on its own. Such a move would also risk alienating parties to Livni's left.
Kadima members acknowledged Wednesday that they face long odds in trying to assemble a viable government but held out hope that in the strange-bedfellows world of Israeli politics, they would somehow strike a deal. "This is the time for negotiating," said Nachman Shai, a newly elected Kadima member of parliament. "It's not going to be over until the last hour on the last night."
Kadima is also wooing the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, although Shas leaders have indicated they will go with Netanyahu.
Analysts say Livni's best shot is to persuade Netanyahu to join her government. She offered him a place in what she called a "government of national unity" in a speech to her backers Tuesday night.
Likud immediately rejected the offer, and Netanyahu has insisted that he will soon return to the prime ministership, a post he held during the late 1990s.
"It's a clear-cut result," said Yuval Steinitz, a top Likud Knesset member. "Without any doubt, Netanyahu will form the next government."
The ultimate decision, however, will be made by President Shimon Peres, a Kadima member who has long favored the creation of a Palestinian state. If Peres picks Netanyahu, he will be breaking from tradition: The candidate representing the party with the most Knesset seats customarily gets the first shot at forming a coalition. But Peres is not bound to pick the top vote-getter, and the president is supposed to pick the candidate who has the best chance to form a stable government.
With results from 99 percent of the polling stations counted, Livni's Kadima has 28 seats compared with Likud's 27. Steinitz said he believes Likud could pull even as the final votes, including those of soldiers, are counted.
Peres is not expected to meet with any of the parties until after the official election results are certified next week. During those meetings, each parties will give its recommendation for who should be the next prime minister. Peres will then make his pick, and either Livni or Netanyahu will have 42 days to create a government.
If Netanyahu is selected, analysts say he will have a critical choice to make: He could either form a narrow coalition built solely on the right-wing bloc or he could try to draw in either Kadima or the center-left Labor Party and form a larger, more moderate government.
Steinitz said Likud's hope is to do the latter. "We would prefer the national unity government, not just with Lieberman and Shas, but with Kadima and Labor," Steinitz said. "It depends on them. They may be too proud."
Medding predicted that Israel would ultimately be led by a national unity government, with Netanyahu at the top. Netanyahu would prefer that to a right-wing coalition, Medding said, because he would have greater room to maneuver.
"He doesn't want to be to the left of his own coalition," Medding said. "But a unity government means that somewhere along the line, Bibi and Livni will both have to compromise."
Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.