Inconclusive election puts Israel, peace in limbo
By KARIN LAUB, Associated Press Writer Karin Laub, Associated Press Writer – 38 mins ago
JERUSALEM – Inconclusive election results sent Israel into political limbo Wednesday with both Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and hard-line leader Benjamin Netanyahu claiming victory and leaving the kingmaker role to a rising political hawk with an anti-Arab platform.
Livni's Kadima Party won 28 seats, just one more than Netanyahu's Likud, in Tuesday's election for the 120-member parliament, according to nearly complete results. Both held victory rallies, but without a clear majority neither can govern alone. Hard-line parties won a majority of the votes, meaning that Netanyahu has more natural allies and a better chance of forming a coalition.
The results set the stage for what could be weeks of coalition negotiations. The first meetings began Wednesday, with Netanyahu meeting the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas faction and Livni meeting Avigdor Lieberman, whose ultranationalist party received 15 seats and emerged as the third-largest force in parliament.
Two of the more likely options would see a hard-line government led by Netanyahu, leaving Livni in the opposition, or some form of accommodation between the two in the form of a centrist coalition in which they would share power.
Whatever government is forged, it is unlikely to move quickly toward peace talks with the Palestinians and instead could find itself on a collision course with President Barack Obama, who has said he's making a Mideast peace deal a priority.
Paralysis could dampen prospects for Egyptian-led attempts to broker a truce between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers after Israel's devastating offensive in Gaza last month. Hamas might be reluctant to sign a deal at the risk of having it overturned by the incoming coalition.
It's up to Israeli President Shimon Peres to decide whether Livni or Netanyahu should have the first shot at forming a government. Peres will meet next week with party leaders to hear their recommendations and he expects to assign the task around Feb. 20, presidential spokeswoman Ayelet Frisch said.
However, the final word may be up to Lieberman, a former Netanyahu protege and perhaps Israel's most divisive politician.
Lieberman says he wants to redraw Israel's borders in order to push out heavily Arab areas and require those who remain to sign a loyalty oath or lose the right to vote or run for office.
Some 20 percent of Israel's 7 million citizens are Arabs, and about a dozen serve in parliament.
Lieberman kept his options open. "We want a right-wing government," Lieberman told party activists, but added that "we do not rule out anyone."
Meeting Lieberman in an attempt to woo him, Livni said Israelis have "chosen who they want to be prime minister."
"This is an opportunity for unity which can push forward the issues which are important to you as well," Livni said, according to a statement issued by her office.
Nearly everyone seemed to agree on one thing after Israel's fifth election in a decade — that the nation's fractious election system isn't working. Livni, Lieberman, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak of the Labor Party said in post-election speeches that the system, in which votes are splintered among a proliferation of parties, must be changed to allow more stability.