- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2006

TEL AVIV — Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared victory last night for his centrist Kadima party in Israel’s elections, vowing to act on his own if necessary to draw Israel’s final borders and “painfully” uproot Jewish settlers if negotiations with the Palestinians are not possible.

But a weaker-than-expected showing could undermine his ability to push for new territorial concessions by Israel in the West Bank.

With more than 95 percent of the vote counted, the newly formed party won 28 seats in the 120-member Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Labor was the second-largest bloc, with 20 seats; the Likud won 11 seats.

If the final results stand, they would leave Mr. Olmert dependent on a potentially unstable constellation of smaller parties to hold together a coalition.

For the first time in Israel’s history, a party other than Labor or Likud will lead the government. Kadima, founded in late November after Prime Minister Sharon resigned from the ruling Likud Party over internal opposition to the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, turned yesterday’s vote into a referendum on the party’s vow to fix Israel’s final borders within four years, either by peace negotiations or unilaterally.

Mr. Sharon’s defection proved devastating for the Likud and its new chairman, Benjamin Netanyahu. The party was projected to win 10 to 12 seats, about one-fourth the number won in elections three years ago.

The preliminary results suggested that Mr. Olmert’s government could not be blocked by any alliance of right-wing parties, virtually all of whom have pledged to stand in the way of his proposal to evacuate unilaterally most Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Mr. Olmert, who took over after Mr. Sharon suffered a massive stroke in January, began his victory speech by thanking the ailing prime minister.

Mr. Sharon’s shadow hung over the campaign even though he remains in deep coma.

The new leader of Israel quickly turned to his goal of creating a final border with the Palestinians, and vowed that Israel would abandon its preference of peace negotiations in favor of unilateral actions if necessary.

In an appeal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Mr. Olmert suggested that he would be ready for negotiations but warned that Palestinians needed to prepare for compromise.

“During thousands of years, we planted the dream of greater Israel in our hearts … but in recognition of the reality, we are ready to compromise, and concede parts of the beloved land of Israel,” Mr. Olmert said, “and evacuate with much sadness Jews living there to create the conditions that will allow you to achieve your dreams and build alongside us a state of your own.”

In a jab at the newly elected Hamas government, Mr. Olmert said: “It’s about time that the Palestinian public and its leaders adjust their dreams to a reality of the existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish state alongside them. It’s time the Palestinian Authority resigns itself, just like us, to achieving only part of its dreams.”

Voter turnout was at 57 percent, confirming widespread apathy amid an election campaign that was described as anemic and lackluster. The weak turnout was thought to have hurt Kadima — which had been forecast to get as many as 39 seats a few weeks ago — while strengthening smaller, niche parties with higher levels of voter loyalty.

“Ehud Olmert can’t say that ‘I got the mandate that I wanted,’ ” said Israeli political commentator Ben Caspit.

Led by Amir Peretz, a populist former union boss, Labor placed socioeconomic issues such as raising the minimum wage on par with questions of peace and security. In remarks that had the ring of a victory speech, Mr. Peretz promised to make good on policies aimed at helping Israel’s poor and working class.

“We are going to create a new society,” he said. “Today, the work is only starting.”

After ruling for most of the past three decades, Likud finished the campaign in disarray and blamed the press, the left and itself.

“The Likud has absorbed a huge blow,” said Mr. Netanyahu in his concession speech.

Yisrael Beiteinu, a party combining Russian immigrants and right-wing hard-liners, finished with 12 to 14 seats, a surprise showing. Avigdor Lieberman, the chairman who has suggested ceding Israeli Arab towns to the Palestinians, said in a victory speech that he aspires to become the new leader of the Israeli nationalist political alliance.

The shocker of the elections was the Pensioner party, which won at least five seats, according to exit polls. It could be an important part of a coalition, analysts said.

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