Ethan Bronner, Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
February 11, 2009 - 1:00am

Israelis awoke Wednesday to find that their parliamentary elections had yielded not a new government but political gridlock instead, along with the prospect of weeks of wrangling and deal making before the country’s direction becomes clear.

With 99 percent of the votes counted, the center-left Kadima Party of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni held a one-seat lead over the rightist Likud Party of Benjamin Netanyahu, 28 to 27 out of 120 seats in Parliament. But the total gains of all parties on the right far outweighed those of the left, leading Mr. Netanyahu and his supporters to demand that he be given first crack at forming the next government.

The remaining 1 percent of votes to be counted — those of soldiers and state employees serving abroad — were expected to be tallied by Thursday and could tip the balance.

Either way, the country’s president, Shimon Peres, was to consult with all parliamentary factions in the coming days before assigning either Mr. Netanyahu or Ms. Livni the task of putting together a coalition with more than 60 seats. That will probably happen next week.

But already, of course, the jockeying had begun, with both party leaders sounding out other parties about coalition prospects. In particular, Avigdor Lieberman, head of the ultranationalist party Yisrael Beitenu, is being courted because his group came in third with 15 seats, and its platform is a curious mix with elements that appeal to each side.

His insistence that Israel’s Arab citizens sign a loyalty oath to qualify for full citizenship is anathema to most on the left, who consider that racist. But they like his efforts to pry marriage and other civil affairs from the grip of the rabbinate and his willingness to create two states, one Jewish, one Palestinian, which would involve yielding areas that are now part of Israel.

Mr. Netanyahu says he wants to build an economic peace with the Palestinians, but he has been vague about the need to uproot Israeli settlements in the West Bank or help the Palestinians create a state.

Ms. Livni, who favors a two-state solution, met Wednesday with Mr. Lieberman. Afterward, she said she was determined, as the winner of the most votes, to form the next government.

“The people chose me in droves,” she told Israel Radio. “I feel a great responsibility to translate the power that has been given to me into action, to advance the country and to unify the people.”

Both Likud and Kadima had indicated earlier that they wished to include the left-wing Labor Party headed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak. But Labor, which took 13 seats, seems at the moment unwilling to join any government. Most of its leaders are talking openly about going into opposition to rebuild their base and re-establish their core principles.

Another party, Shas, with 11 seats, is made up of Orthodox Sephardic voters and will also have a key role as a power broker. It is committed to Mr. Netanyahu, in principle, and said Wednesday that it favored a government coalition of the right led by him. If Likud brings together Shas and Mr. Lieberman’s party, along with the more traditionally religious ones, it will be able to form such a government.

Mr. Netanyahu has said that he would like to form a centrist coalition in order to face the many challenges of the country with as broad and representative a government as possible. But if Labor and Kadima turn their backs on him, that will not be possible.

There is also speculation about Likud and Kadima’s forming a government together and rotating in the prime minister’s chair, an arrangement that Labor and Likud agreed to in the 1980s. Likud, however, seems uninterested and confident that it will get the nod to form the government without making such a commitment.

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat, said Israel needed to send a clear message that it was committed to the two-state solution and an end to its occupation of the West Bank.

Any Israeli government that does not honor past agreements with the Palestinians or “totally freeze all settlement activity, that does not deal seriously with the Arab Peace Initiative and that does not believe in a two-state solution based on 1967 borders, cannot be a partner for peace with the Palestinians,” he said in a statement.

Because Israeli governments fall with ease and are formed with enormous difficulty, calls for reform of the electoral system are increasing. The Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan group, called Wednesday for a public campaign to enlist support for change.

Arik Carmon, the institute’s president, told Israel Radio that the country needed both national and regional ballots — all voting is national now — as well as an amendment that would automatically make the chairman of the largest party after elections the prime minister. He said this would oblige parties to unite before elections and reduce the number of parties in Parliament.


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