Israeli Election Results Set Stage For Negotiations

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Israel faces political uncertainty as the leaders of both the Likud and Kadima parties have claimed victory. With neither party winning a clear majority, neither can govern alone. Coalition negotiations could take weeks.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Two parties are claiming victory today following Israel's national election. With most of the votes counted from yesterday's voting, the Centrist Kadima Party has a very narrow edge over the conservative Likud Party. With both sides claiming a mandate to govern, it looks like weeks of tough negotiations are ahead before there will be a coalition government. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Kadima have trailed Likud throughout the campaign, so supporters at a packed Tel Aviv hotel ballroom were exuberant last night when exit polls showed the Centrist Party and Tzipi Livni beating Likud. As the party's theme song played, a blue-and-white silhouette of Livni flashed on a giant screen with the slogan Belivni, a morphing of believe and her name.

The Obama-esque slogan is the work of Kadima political strategist Lior Horev.

Mr. LIOR HOREV (Political strategist, Kadima): At the end of the day hope won. She never let go. I would say she's the comeback lady of Israeli politics.

WESTERVELT: Ballots from soldiers still need to be counted, but preliminary results show Kadima getting 28 seats in parliament to Likud's 27. Traditionally, the party with the most votes and seats gets to form a new collations and its leader becomes prime minister.

Kadima parliament member Nachman Shai called the election a win for the vital center and an endorsement of peace talks and a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Mr. NACHMAN SHAI (Parliament member, Kadima): It's a great victory for Tzipi Livni and the Kadima party, and also for the basic and the core of power ideology which is voting for a two-state, for two-people, for a Jewish democratic state and a defensible border. That's because many Israelis believe that this is the right way to go. This is the right way to go.

WESTERVELT: But at another swank hotel in Tel Aviv conservative Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu also declared victory. He said the right-wing block, what he calls the national block, overall got more votes and seats in parliament, at least 65 seats in the 120 member body. Netanyahu said Likud should form and lead a new coalition.

Mr. BENJAMIN NETANYAHU (Leader of Likud Party): (Through translator) The people want a change. They want to step in a new way. Our way has won and this is the way that will lead the people.

WESTERVELT: Both Netanyahu and Livni said they want to form a broad-based national unity government.

The key player in what is sure to be complex and messy political maneuvers is ultra-nationalist candidate Avigdor Lieberman, who ran on an anti-Arab platform that calls for a loyalty pledge from Israeli Arabs. His relatively new right-wing party, Yisrael Beiteinu or Israel Our Homeland, came in third with 14 seats. Lieberman last night said he'd prefer to join a right-wing coalition, but did not rule out any options.

The Labour Party led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak finished in fourth place, an historic low for a founding party that dominated politics here for more than three decades.

Dr. Arye Carmon, president of the Israeli Democracy Institute, says the election results are a recipe for political deadlock.

Dr. ARYE CARMON (President, Israel Democracy Institute): This election has brought us into a stalemate - total stalemate. It's very hard to say how we can get out of this Gordian knot.

WESTERVELT: This is the fifth national election in Israel in 10 years. Thirty-four parties were on the ballot yesterday. Dr. Carmon says the outcome underscores the urgent need to reform Israel's fractious and dysfunctional electoral system and to repair a political process marred by corruption and confusion.

Dr. CARMON: To reform the system in such a way that Israel will have no more than five to seven parties, we need stable government that could sustain for close to four years, if not full four years. And we need to rehabilitate the trust of the Israeli public in politics.

WESTERVELT: Now, Israelis president Shimon Peres will soon meet with all party leaders to gauge who parliament members think has the best chance to form a stable coalition. The chosen party then has a month and a half to form a new government. One analyst here said whoever leads that effort will likely need all 45 days and then some.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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