TEL AVIV - Tzipi Livni's Kadima party took a surprise lead in Israel’s parliamentary elections on Tuesday, but even if she edges out her rival Benjamin Netanyahu in a final vote count the foreign minister could fail to rally enough seats to build a coalition government.
Despite a one- or two-seat margin for the centrist Kadima party predicted in early exit polls, the left-wing bloc is outnumbered by a strong showing of right-wing, nationalistic and religious parties that casts doubt on Livni’s ability to establish a coalition and become prime minister.
“With all due respect to Tzipi Livni, she won’t be able to build a government. And that is very clear,” said Gilad Erdan, a parliament member on the Likud ticket. “Those in Israel who opposed the disengagement (withdrawal from Gaza in 2005), those who oppose giving up territories for nothing now have the clear majority.”
At Likud headquarters a victorious mood quickly deflated when initial exit polls announced Kadima as the front runner. But party members were quick to spin the results in party leader Netanyahu’s favor.
“Tzipi Livni only has 43 votes in order to create a government and we have 63 members of Knesset who support the idea that Benjamin Netanyahu will be the next prime minister of Israel,” said Likud Knesset Member Reuven Rivlin.
Both Livni and Netanyahu declared victory Wednesday morning and Livni left the door open for her rival to join her government.
“I proposed to you before the elections were set to join a unity government under my leadership. You refused,” she said. “Now all that is left is to do the right thing, to honor the decision of the citizens of Israel, to do what is right for Israel at this time…and to join a unity government led by us.”
Netanyahu hinted at the possibility of working with Livni, but with him as head of the government.
“From this day on, the right wing bloc rises to an absolute majority in the Knesset,” he said. “There is no doubt regarding our own movement’s meteoric rise. In the last Knesset we had only 12 seats, 10 percent of the Knesset. We have more than doubled our power and grown more than any other party.”
After all the votes are counted, President Shimon Peres has one week to decide which party leader will be first to attempt to build a government and the prime minister-designate then has six weeks to form a coalition. Peres may decide that even with fewer mandates Netanyahu has a better chance at establishing a stable government.
Israel Beiteinu (Israel our Home) became the third largest party, surpassing Labor, traditionally one of the top two parties. A polarizing figure who has been called a racist by the media and opponents, Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman appears to have galvanized the secular Zionist vote.
Lieberman’s campaign theme, “No loyalty, no citizenship” refers to his proposed loyalty test aimed at Israeli Arab members of parliament who speak out against the Jewish state and, in some cases, advise the Palestinian government. Lieberman’s views struck a cord among voters who are disillusioned with faltering peace talks and unabated terror attacks.
Leading up to the elections many factors indicated a shift to the right, including a desire to balance Barack Obama’s democratic administration with a more hawkish Israeli government in U.S.-led negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Likud jumped from 12 seats in the previous government to an estimated 27 or 28, while Israel Beiteinu surged to a likely 16 seats from 11. The right-wing bloc is bolstered by religious parties Shas, Jewish Home and United Torah Judaism.
“The conservative side of the political spectrum has gotten stronger,” observed Dore Gold, author and director of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
The left-wing vote was split just three ways. Kadima led with 29 possible seats. Rounding out the leftist parties was Labor, which saw a dismal drop from 19 seats to an estimated 13, and Meretz, expected to earn four or five seats. In that context, Prof. Barry Rubin of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herziliya said Kadima’s apparent edge is not surprising despite Likud’s strong lead in the polls in recent weeks.
Rubin also disagrees with the assumption that Israelis voted more hawkishly this year and that the Likud party is right wing.
“The real move has been toward the center, which is represented not only by Kadima and Likud but also by Labor,” he wrote in Tuesday’s The Jerusalem Post. “A greater majority is about to vote for parties close to centrist positions than at any time in history.”
The final voter turnout was 65.2 percent compared to 63.2 in 2006.
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