- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2009

TEL AVIV | Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu both claimed the mantle of Israel’s next prime minister late Tuesday night, but exit polls gave a slight edge to Mrs. Livni, who has been more supportive of territorial concessions to Palestinians under a peace agreement.

Israel’s three major television stations gave Mrs. Livni’s centrist Kadima party a two-seat advantage over Mr. Netanyahu’s center-right Likud. However, Mr. Netanyahu appeared to have a better shot at forming a coalition because parliament is likely to have a majority of right-wing and religious parties.

All parties were well aware of previous elections in which the actual results differed from those predicted by exit polls.

Nevertheless, the provisional results confirmed a late-breaking shift after polls in the months leading up to the vote gave a clear advantage to Mr. Netanyahu.

Contrary to expectations of a right-wing-dominated government, Israel could end up with a national unity government including both opponents and supporters of giving up land to the Jewish state’s Arab neighbors in return for peace. That might make for an easier relationship with the Obama administration, which has appointed a special envoy - former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell - to spearhead peace talks.

Some analysts, however, predicted that the absence of an overwhelming winner would lead to an unstable government with a short life span.

“This has made an already complicated situation more complex,” said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator. “In addition to the broken Palestinian house you now have this quasi-dysfunctional Israeli house…. There are only two options: Option one is a national unity government composed of the three parties [Kadima, Likud and Labor], which is what most Israelis want. The [other] option is a narrowly based right-wing government led by Bibi [Netanyahu], which will have no chance of making peace and will be very tough for the Arabs, the international community and the U.S. to deal with.”

In a victory speech, Mrs. Livni called on Mr. Netanyahu to join a Kadima-led administration.

“Today the people chose Kadima,” she said. “All that is left to do is respect the desire of the citizens of Israel and join a coalition government led by us.”

However, Likud also claimed victory, citing poll numbers that suggested right-wing and religious parties sympathetic to Mr. Netanyahu would control a majority of the seats in the 120-member Knesset.

“I am sure that, God willing, I will have the opportunity to form a broad and stable coalition,” Mr. Netanyahu said Tuesday night.

But that majority seemed to have shrunk from a high 60s percentage to a low 60s percentage, another indication of the late-breaking shift.

The election followed Israel’s 22-day assault on Hamas last month, which crowded out debate on domestic concerns such as the economic crisis and may have boosted Mrs. Livni by showing that she could support tough military action.

However, even if Mrs. Livni prevails over Mr. Netanyahu, she faces difficulty winning a vote of confidence to become Israel’s second female leader after the legendary Golda Meir.

Under Israel’s parliamentary system, the biggest party in the parliament doesn’t necessarily lead the government. Weeks of haggling to form a coalition government could boost the bargaining power of apparent third-place finisher Avigdor Lieberman of the right-wing Israel Beiteinu party. The surge of Mr. Lieberman’s party, which ran on a campaign assailing the loyalty of Israeli Arabs, who make up one-fifth of the population, may have siphoned off votes from Mr. Netanyahu.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s Labor Party appeared to finish fourth - a resounding rejection of a former prime minister despite his stewardship of the offensive against Hamas and of the party that founded Israel and dominated its politics for nearly half its 61 years as a modern Jewish state.

David Makovsky, a specialist on Israel at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said: “There is no option of a purely center-left coalition to garner a majority of the government. There is an option of a grander center-right government either led by Livni or Netanyahu, and there is an option of a narrow-right government led by Netanyahu. Netanyahu has said a narrow-right government limits his room to maneuver on the international stage. Now, we’ll see which option materializes.”

Going to the polls for the fifth time in about 10 years, Israelis appeared to be feeling election fatigue. Still, Israeli news Web sites cited election officials as saying that about two-thirds of eligible voters turned out to vote.

The campaign was bitter and personal.

Mr. Netanyahu assailed Mrs. Livni as unfit and lacking the experience for the top job, while touting himself as “strong on security and strong on the economy.”

Kadima and Mrs. Livni argued in turn that Mr. Netanyahu was Israel’s “worst prime minister” and shouldn’t be given a second chance.

Kadima also tried to channel the success of President Obama. Mrs. Livni’s campaign used an illustrated portrait that cast her with soft, optimistic eyes and thick hair — a stark contrast to the early campaign posters in which she looked hard and robotic.

• Eli Lake contributed to this story from Washington.

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