- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2006

TEL AVIV — Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, winner of Tuesday’s Israeli election, began informal negotiations yesterday with prospective coalition partners, several of which laid out demands for joining a government that is expected to be bottom heavy with smaller niche factions.

“The bang,” read one newspaper headline, referring to the disintegration of the two-party system into a confusing array of 12 parliamentary factions with no dominant group. One commentator called the new legislature a “postmodern” parliament in which older ideologies of left and right have been discredited.

Mr. Olmert’s centrist Kadima Party, which disappointed party members by managing only 28 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, is expected to shape its coalition around a partnership with the dovish Labor Party, which earned 20 seats.

Israel’s Channel 2 television news suggested that Mr. Olmert would piece together a coalition of more than 70 members by adding a party of pensioners and two ultrareligious parties, including the third-place Shas Party. The results indicated that the prime minister probably could rely on 69 votes to support his plan to withdraw from much of the West Bank within four years, either through negotiation or unilateral withdrawal.

“I want to see a coalition that doesn’t become sucked into a crisis midway, like we’ve seen” in the past, said Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. “[We want] a coalition that supports a division into two states.”

The negotiations began as a new Hamas-led Palestinian Cabinet was sworn in at ceremonies in Ramallah and Gaza City. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said his government would give its blessing to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ pursuit of peace negotiations with Israel, even though the Islamic militants have ruled out talks in the past.

“If the Palestinian Authority chairman, as the serving president, wants to accelerate the negotiations, we won’t oppose this,” he said.”If what President Abbas [presents after] negotiations serves our interests, we can also redefine our positions.”

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he hoped that Israel’s new government would abandon unilateralism in favor of peace negotiations.

“The right is down and the right is up, the left is center and the center is left, and its all very confusing,” said Mr. Erekat.

Unstable coalitions in Israel have prompted five general elections in less than 10 years, spurring widespread disillusionment and apathy.

Kadima, the first party other than Labor and Likud elected to run the government, had been expected to reel in close to 40 seats as recently as a few weeks ago. The lackluster performance puts Labor in a position to demand one of three top ministerial portfolios — foreign, defense or finance.

“Suddenly the results will force Kadima to see us as almost equal partners,” said Labor Knesset member Yuli Tamir. “We are going to be tough negotiators.”

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