Israeli rivals battle for power after tight vote
With Israel facing the prospect of a hard right government, the Palestinian Authority is bracing for its tottering peace talks with the Jewish state to halt completely.Jerusalem -- Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and hawkish ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu were locked in a battle for power on Wednesday, after a photo-finish election that could send peace talks into limbo.
Livni's centrist Kadima party won 28 seats in the 120-member parliament, just one ahead of Netanyahu's Likud party, leaving the country facing perhaps weeks of political uncertainty.
An overall lurch to the right has made it more likely that Netanyahu will return to the nation's most powerful post, but Livni immediately started coalition talks, meeting on Wednesday with ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman.
"This is an opportunity for unity that can promote issues that are important for our two parties,” Livni's office said after the meeting with the Yisrael Beiteinu leader. “They agreed to continue their contacts."
Lieberman has emerged as a kingmaker after Tuesday's vote
Hard-line parties gained ground on the back of the Gaza war and security concerns. The right's likely return to power could hamper US-backed efforts to revive the faltering Middle East peace negotiations.
"The winner is Livni, but Netanyahu holds the key," wrote the mass-selling Yediot Aharonot, after Kadima confounded pollsters with its narrow election win.
"Livni won the battle yesterday, but is liable to lose the war," declared the tabloid Maariv.
The close results risk plunging Israel into an unprecedented political stalemate, as party leaders embark on furious horse-trading over the formation of the next coalition.
"Israel is waking up today into a political crisis the likes of which we've probably never known," Maariv said.
Both Netanyahu -- who became Israel's youngest prime minister in 1996 -- and Livni swiftly laid claim to the premiership.
"The people voted in their masses,” Livni's office quoted her as saying on Wednesday. “I can feel the great responsibility to translate the power entrusted to me into deeds and to unite the nation."
Netanyahu told supporters on Tuesday he was convinced would be able to form the next government.
"I can unite all forces of this nation and lead Israel," he said.
Under Israel's political system, it is the party considered best able to form a coalition -- and not necessarily the winner of the most seats -- which will be tasked by the president with forming a new government.
President Shimon Peres has said he will begin consultations next week.
Netanyahu can, in theory, rally 65 seats, including Likud's 27, 15 won by ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, 11 from the ultra-Orthodox Shas, five from the religious United Torah Judaism and seven from two extreme-right settler parties, Jewish Home and National Union.
Livni can count on the support of 44 MPs, including Kadima's 28, 13 from Labor and three from the left-wing Meretz.
The remaining 11 seats are held by Arab parties, which are highly unlikely to join any coalition.
The new kingmaker is Lieberman, a 50-year-old tough-talking Soviet immigrant and onetime bouncer whose Yisrael Beitenu bumped the veteran Labor party to a historic low of 13 seats.
Peace process set back
Faced with a possible right wing Israeli government headed by Netanyahu, the Palestinian Authority is bracing for its tottering peace talks with the Jewish state to halt completely.
"It is obvious that Israel will not get a government capable of continuing the negotiations," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top aide of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas. "As for us, we rule out any negotiation with the next Israeli government, irrespective of who leads it, if it doesn't announce the complete halt of settlement activity."
Al-Quds, the main daily in the Palestinian territories, was equally pessimistic.
"Diplomatic activity in general and the peace process in particular will be frozen," it said.
Since it was re-launched after a seven-year hiatus at an American conference in November 2007, the peace process has made little progress. Continued construction activity in Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank is among the many hurdles.
Netanyahu insists that peace negotiations should be held only after the economic situation of Palestinians has improved, while Livni has distanced herself from a call for the evacuation in the near future of 60,000 settlers.
"It's obvious the Israelis have voted to paralyze the peace process," said senior negotiator Saeb Erakat. "The outcome of the Israeli elections indicates there won't be in Israel a government capable of doing what is needed to achieve peace."
A spokesman for Hamas -- the target of Israel's three-week war on Gaza that killed over 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis -- said voters had picked "the most bellicose candidates, those who are the most extremist in their rhetoric."
Tricky bargaining ahead
Although pundits are eyeing Netanyahu as prime minister, the smooth-talking media-savvy tactician nevertheless faces tricky bargaining ahead.
Observers said he does not want to form a purely right-wing government in order to avoid a clash with Washington and head off the risk it could be held hostage to the whims of smaller parties.
But his wish for a unity government is complicated by Livni's performance, as she is unlikely to agree to join such a coalition unless she leads it.
Amid the stalemate, a rotating premiership used in the 1980s is starting to emerge as a viable option.
"Livni will serve for two years as prime minister, after which Netanyahu will serve for two years," Yediot wrote. "The voters will love that solution, at first at least. Netanyahu will love it less. Livni isn't going to be overjoyed with the solution, but she probably won't have much of a choice."