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Israeli Elections Too Close to Call

Binyamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party and Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima party each try to build a coalition government after general elections, in which neither obtained the 61-seat bloc necessary to gain control of the parliament and become prime minister.

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Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 11, 2009; 2:00 PM

Post Jerusalem correspondent Griff Witte was online Wednesday, Feb. 11, at 2 p.m. ET to take your questions about the Israeli election Tuesday, which left both Binyamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni claiming victory.

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In Israeli Vote Results, A Setback for Obama (Post, Feb. 11)

A transcript follows.

For more, listen to World Briefing: Israeli Voters Split Decision (mp3).

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Griff Witte: Greetings all,

Nearly 24 hours after the polls closed, we're still trying to figure out who will govern Israel. And we could be waiting for weeks longer. The voters delivered a split decision -- making Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's Kadima Party the top vote-getter (at least for now), while giving a majority of seats in Israel's parliament to the right-wing bloc led by former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Now it's up to each to try to build a viable governing coalition -- not easy in a parliament that has been divided up among 12 parties, each with its own agenda.

Happy to take any and all questions, so fire away.

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Arlington, Va.: What vote percentage did Ehud Barak receive, and could Livni and Barak form a government? Thanks.

Griff Witte: The short answer is not without outside help. Barak's Labor posted a very disappointing result in this year's elections. It fell to fourth place, an embarrassing showing for a party that dominated Israeli politics for decades.

Performance in Israeli elections tends to be measured in seats, not percentages, so I'll tell you that Labor received 13 seats. Kadima picked up 28. You add those together and you're only at 41 -- well short of the 61 needed to form a government in the 120-member Knesset.

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York, U.K.: Why has the Labor Party failed to garner the votes it used to be able to capture in the past? Can one assume that Labor's failure is tied to the failure of Israel's peacemaking efforts vis-a-vis Oslo? Is Livni the new Left of Israel even though Ariel Sharon had established the Kadima party to be the new right?

Griff Witte: Labor's failure does indeed have a lot to do with the failure of Oslo. The party has had a tough time developing a distinctive message at a time when there's a widespread sense in Israel that there's no sense talking to the Palestinians because there's no chance of reaching a workable deal. Many Israelis feel burned by the failure of Oslo, and are reluctant to try again.

Kadima has also cut into Labor's appeal. Sharon founded Kadima as a centrist party that was intended to take the best ideas from right and left. The party pulled voters and candidates from either side. In 2006, Kadima won handily, and Likud was completely marginalized. Now Likud is back, and Labor has been marginalized.

You're correct that in the current political arrangement, Kadima leads what's known as the center-left bloc. That means it advocates continuing a dialogue with the Palestinians with the hope of creating a Palestinian state, even though the Fatah-Hamas divide makes a state unrealistic in the near-term.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: What are the differences between the two candidates in how they intend to approach communications with various Palestinian groups?

Griff Witte: This is a central question in Israeli politics. As I mentioned in the previous post, Livni favors continuing talks with the Palestinians, and she served as Israel's lead negotiator during last year's Annapolis process. She warns that unless Israel can reach agreement on the creation of a Palestinian state, Israel will face a demographic dilemma: A clear majority of Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. That, Livni says, will put Israel in the position of having to choose between its democratic and Jewish natures.

It's important to note that Livni only favors talks with the moderate, West Bank-based Palestinian Authority. She was one of the leaders of Israel's 22-day war against Hamas, and she does not favor direct talks with the Islamist movement.

Netanyahu has been much more critical of U.S.-backed peace talks. The negotiations, he argues, are a waste of time given the Fatah-Hamas rift. He also warns that ceding the West Bank to the Palestinians could make the territory a launching pad for rockets that could reach Ben-Gurion Airport. He has vowed not to allow Jerusalem to be divided, and he has said he will not relinquish the Golan Heights to Syria. Instead of a political deal with the Palestinians, Netanyahu talks of "an economic peace," in which Israel helps to improve economic conditions in the West Bank.

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Fairfax, Va.: What does this mean for Barack Obama?

Griff Witte: Regardless of whether Livni or Netanyahu becomes prime minister, Tuesday's election will complicate Obama's ambition to mediate a Middle East peace deal. Netanyahu has signaled he's not interested in talks. Livni is, but the rightward shift of the electorate in this year's vote means she will have to reach right if she wants to form a government.

The outgoing Olmert government was significantly to the left of whatever government emerges in the coming weeks. It came under strain as last year's Annapolis negotiations advanced, with a key member, the ultra-Orthodox party Shas, threatening to quit if the issue of Jerusalem even came up in the talks. That sort of pressure will likely be more intense going forward.

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Chantilly, Va.: How closely are Hamas and Fatah watching what happens? Does it really matter to them what faction gains power in the parliament?

Griff Witte: Palestinians tend to say that it doesn't matter to them who wins. "Two sides of the same coin" is a common refrain. Even though Livni is to Netanyahu's left, Palestinians point out that Livni just helped orchestrate a war in which 1,300 people in Gaza were killed. Netanyahu has said he plans to go back into Gaza to "finish the job" of destroying Hamas, if elected.

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Exit Polls. Exit Polls?: I'm still not sure who won the election in terms of vote percentage. All of the stories referred to exit poll results, as if those constituted the final tally.

Here in America, we know that exit polls are flaky. In the extreme. You know this especially well if you're a conservative who has seen exit polls favoring liberal candidates leaked time and again before the polls close.

But I digress. Did the exit polls in Israel turn out to be correct after the final vote tally?

Griff Witte: Both the exit polls and the pre-election polls turned out to be very close to the mark. The exit polls almost exactly reflected the near-final tally, give or take a seat here and there. (We have results from 99 percent of polling stations. Still awaiting that pesky final percent.) The pre-election polls did not forecast a Livni win, but they did show her closing the gap with Netanyahu in the campaign's final days.

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Washington, D.C.: What brought Netanyahu back? Or has he been there all along since he was last prime minister? Isn't he hard line?

Griff Witte: Netanyahu was in the political wilderness for a good long while. He was voted out of office as prime minister in 1999. He later served as finance minister under Sharon, but resigned to protest the disengagement from Gaza. His Likud party was trounced in the 2006 elections, receiving only 12 seats in the Knesset out of 120. Now he's back, in a strong position to reclaim Israel's top job.

Netanyahu is considered to the right in his views, but he's shown a willingness to cut deals. As prime minister, he agreed to give the Palestinians partial control of the West Bank city of Hebron. The Likud also has a history of deal-making, despite its generally hawkish stances: It was Begin, after all, who gave up the Sinai and made peace with Egypt.

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Washington, D.C.: If Livni is declared the winner and she is unable to garner enough support to form a coalition government due to the conservative gains in parliament, what will happen?

Griff Witte: Traditionally, the party with the most seats in the Knesset gets to form the government. But it doesn't have to be that way. President Shimon Peres gets to decide who takes the first shot at forming a government. He's supposed to pick the candidate with the best chance of creating a stable coalition. In this case, that could well be Netanyahu, even though his party does not appear to have received the most votes.

It's all about coalitions here in Israel. Consider that none of the parties received more than a quarter of the overall vote.

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Campaigning in Israel?: How long is the campaign period in Israel? Compared to, say, European nations or the U.S. (where it seems like 2012 is already starting up, alas).

Griff Witte: Campaigns are mercifully short in Israel. This one especially. The Gaza war cut significantly into the campaign season, leaving just about three weeks for the candidates to hit the stump. Even with the compressed timetable, the candidates did not do all that much campaigning. Rallies were few and far between. There were no debates.

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San Antonio, Tex.: If Peres chooses Livni next week and If Lieberman decides to go with her instead of Netanyahu and then of course she does manage to build a coalition would she then be able to keep this coalition together if she decided to make peace moves with the Palestinians and Arabs in the future? Divide Jerusalem, give up the Golan Heights, etc.

Griff Witte: All of the above is very doubtful.

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Washington, D.C.: If Peres gives Livni the nod, what do you think she will have to give Lieberman (Defense Minister?) in order to get him on board? Is there any scenario where she can form a coalition without him?

Griff Witte: Livni would have to promise Lieberman an awful lot to convince him to abandon Netanyahu and go with her. I doubt the defense ministry, but I understand that finance is a possibility. This process is made more complicated by the fact that Lieberman is the subject of an active corruption investigation. Livni campaigned as the anti-corruption candidate.

Theoretically, she could form a coalition without him, but she would have to convince Netanyahu and Barak to join her in a national unity government.

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Columbia, Md.: From your (co-written) article about how this election will complicate things for Obama comes this quote:

"Israeli and Palestinian societies are so divided, with such politically weak leaders, that few believe either the Israelis or the Palestinians can muster the will to reach a deal."

I think this is a grossly unfair statement of the situation. It is not that the leaders themselves are weak, it's that the Israeli electoral system makes it very difficult for coalition governments to accomplish complex and sensitive tasks.

Netanyahu and Livni are among the strongest leaders I have seen among many countries. It's just that the electorate has not given them a majority of Knesset members to accomplish their goals.

washingtonpost.com: In Israeli Vote Results, A Setback for Obama (Post, Feb. 11)

Griff Witte: Whether it's the politicians themselves who are weak, or the system around them that limits their options, the reality is that it's very difficult for Israeli leaders to make a bold move without paying a significant penalty. I agree with you that the fractious political environment definitely contributes.

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Washington, D.C.: Is there any likelihood that two basically antithetical political groups, Hamas and Likud, will find a way to achieve a negotiated settlement, unless Hamas recognizes, at some point in the process, that the Israelis are not going to negotiate themselves out of existence, and unless the Likud recognizes that it cannot allow the settlers to dictate terms for the rest of Israel? Also, is either of these scenarios likely at all?

Griff Witte: The idea of Hamas and Likud reaching a negotiated settlement seems far-fetched under any scenario. But hey, it's the Middle East, where both hope and despair spring eternal. Hamas and Likud appear to be ascendant on their respective sides of the conflict. I'm guessing we'll soon find out how each approaches the other.

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Griff Witte: I need to get back to the beat, but thanks for the good questions, everyone.

Best,

Griff

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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