- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2009

JERUSALEM (AP) — The Kadima Party of moderate Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni kept its slight lead over Benjamin Netanyahu’s hawkish Likud in final election results announced Thursday, but the hard-line bloc in Israel’s new parliament will have the power to stymie Mideast peace efforts.

Kadima will get 28 seats in the 120-seat parliament and Likud 27, far less than the 61-seat majority needed to govern alone. Livni and Netanyahu are already hard at work trying to line up potential partners for a governing coalition.

Israel’s Election Commission released the final results after counting votes by soldiers, prisoners and diplomats, about 100,000 out of a total of 3.3 million cast. The additional votes did not change the allocation of parliament seats tallied after the Tuesday election.

The hawkish bloc headed by Likud, including the new No. 3 party, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, controls 65 seats, giving Netanyahu the edge in coalition building. But each party has its own agenda, and getting them all to sit around the same Cabinet table is far from automatic.

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Both Livni and Netanyahu are promoting the idea of a joint “national unity” government. In the most likely scenario, Netanyahu would be prime minister while Kadima would hold key government ministries like finance, defense or foreign affairs.

Together, Kadima and Likud would approach a parliamentary majority, reducing the bargaining power of the smaller factions as potential coalition members.

That could undercut Lieberman, whose party won 15 seats and supplanted the once dominant Labor Party as the third-biggest political group. He wants to redraw Israel’s borders to push areas with heavy concentrations of Israeli Arabs under Palestinian jurisdiction. Arabs who remained would be forced to sign a loyalty oath to the Jewish state to keep the right to vote or run for office.

But the hawkish makeup of the new parliament — and Netanyahu’s own opposition to peace treaty talks with the Palestinians — could stall efforts to negotiate an accord. That could put the new government into conflict with the U.S., where President Barack Obama has pledged to put Mideast peacemaking high on his agenda.

Last month Obama sent a special Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, on his first tour of the region. Mitchell is on record as favoring talks on a peace treaty and opposing expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Netanyahu disagrees on both issues.

The election results will be published in the official government journal next Wednesday, and then the formal clock starts ticking toward formation of a new Israeli government.

The process starts with President Shimon Peres consulting the 12 parties to hear their recommendations about who should become prime minister. Peres will pick the candidate he believes has the best chance of forming a government.

If more than 60 members of parliament express support for one of the candidates, Peres’ choice becomes obvious — and efforts by Livni and Netanyahu now are focused on trying to win those endorsements.

The premier-designate will have six weeks to form a coalition and win approval from the new parliament.

Only once has a prime minister-designate failed to form a government. That was Livni, who was picked to succeed Ehud Olmert after he tendered his resignation in September because of multiple corruption investigations. She failed to put together a coalition, forcing Tuesday’s election.

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