Israel's Parties In Coalition Talks

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Israel held elections Tuesday and preliminary results show both Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima's Tzipi Livni claiming victory. The results are a sign of the difficult coalition government talks to come.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

A stalemate, a deadlock - whatever you call it - yesterday's parliamentary elections in Israel have ended with uncertainty. With 99 percent of the votes counted, it is unclear who will be the next prime minister. The centrist Kadima Party, led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, gained the largest block of seats in the Israeli Parliament, but by the narrowest of margins. The right-wing Likud bloc, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is close behind.

And the parties will now have to jockey for position in a new government. NPR's Eric Westervelt joins us now from Jerusalem. Eric, Kadima won the largest single block of seats in parliament, but many analysts are predicting a right-leaning coalition led by Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu. Why the skepticism that Tzipi Livni can form some sort of coalition?

ERIC WESTERVELT: Well, Michele, she tried last year to form a coalition after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced his resignation, following some corruption allegations, and she just couldn't pull it off. A key hurdle was the ultra-Orthodox parties who Livni said were demanding too high a political and a financial price to join together in her coalition effort. And this time around, again, Michele, it appears, you know, she may not have the support.

She just doesn't have the numbers from leftists and religious parties to form a coalition. I mean, given the rough and tumble of Israel's parliamentary coalition system, every coalition leader needs these smaller parties and ones that, here, she may not even be ideologically in agreement with. And for Livni, once again, she'll be hard-pressed to cobble together something that can please everyone.

NORRIS: The Israel Our Homeland Party came in third in the parliamentary elections. Does that mean that this party will play the role of power broker in these coalition talks?

WESTERVELT: Absolutely. Avigdor Lieberman last night and again today said, you know, he'd prefer a right-wing coalition with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, but he also didn't rule out anything. He said he's keeping his options open and, really, he's in the driver seat. He came in a strong third with 15 seats in parliament. And Michele, to underscore just how important this ultra-nationalist right-wing candidate will be in any coalition talks, both Livni and Netanyahu today flocked to see him to try to persuade him that they offer the best deal in any potential coalition. Lieberman agreed to hold more talks with Livni in coming days, and he's scheduled to meet with Netanyahu, as well.

NORRIS: If Likud's Netanyahu gets to form the coalition that he has said that he's wanted - a broad-based national unity government, how might he achieve that?

WESTERVELT: It'll be a challenge for him, as well. I mean, Likud advisors say a key lesson from Netanyahu's first stint as prime minister, Michele, in the late '90s, is that a narrow right-wing coalition, which is what he had back then, can be a recipe for failure. He was often at odds on key foreign policy issues with the Clinton administration on important issues of peace talks with the Palestinians, and he was voted out of office. And so, this time around he wants a broad-based unity government, but it's not clear that he can pull it off.

The ultra-Orthodox party, they support Likud, but they detest the secular right-wing Lieberman who really built his campaign this time around an anti-Arab and an anti-religious rhetoric. So, the Shas Party spiritual leader told supporters before the election that a vote for Lieberman amounts to, in his words, a vote for the devil. So Netanyahu has his work cut out for him forging even this narrow coalition of the right-wing.

NORRIS: Eric, the Israeli Labor Party finished in fourth place. It was an historic low for a party that helped found the state of Israel. What's next for that once dominant center-left party?

WESTERVELT: Well, Michele, we're told there's an intense debate within the Labor Party on whether to go into the opposition now, and rebuild, and reassess and try to come back stronger next time or whether to join one of the coalition options. It's telling that almost every Labor official, except the top leader, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, has said Labor should not join in a coalition that includes Avigdor Lieberman.

Others in Labor say, come on, we have to stand for something. We have to make changes. We have to rebuild and not simply go along with whatever coalition offers us the best deal in terms of cabinet positions.

NORRIS: From Ehud Barak to President Barack Obama, what do these elections results mean for the Obama administration's plan to revive Arab-Israeli peacemaking?

WESTERVELT: I think it's certainly going to complicate those efforts. Tzipi Livni has said these talks should continue, and she's led these talks, but Benjamin Netanyahu has questioned the worth of these talks and said he's instead talking about an economic peace with West Bank Palestinians.

NORRIS: Thank you very much, Eric.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

NORRIS: That was NPR's Eric Westervelt speaking to us from Jerusalem.

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New Phase Of Campaigning Under Way In Israel

A new phase of campaigning is under way in Israel, following its parliamentary elections.

Hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu and his moderate rival, Tzipi Livni, are courting potential coalition partners.

With only a few thousand votes still to be counted, Livni's Kadima party has one more seat in the Knesset than Netanyahu's Likud. But Netanyahu's natural allies on the right have a clear majority of 65 in the 120-seat parliament, giving him the edge in forming a coalition.

President Shimon Peres will consult all 12 parties in the new parliament next week before choosing either Netanyahu or Livni to try to form a government. It's a process likely to take weeks.

Israel entered a period of political uncertainty and turmoil following inconclusive elections Tuesday that saw the leaders of both the centrist Kadima party and the right-wing Likud bloc claiming victory and mandates to form the next government.

Kadima leader Livni met Wednesday in Jerusalem with Avigdor Lieberman, the head of the far-right Israel Beiteinu party, in an effort to start forming a new coalition. Lieberman rode a strident campaign, questioning the loyalty of Israel's Arab citizens, into a strong third-place election finish and is now a key power broker in what are sure to be weeks of political jockeying.

Outside her Tel Aviv home before the meeting Wednesday, Livni made a pitch for unity and pledged to try to forge a broad-based coalition.

"The people chose me in droves. 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," she said.

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

"It's a great victory for Tzipi Livni and the Kadima party and also for the basic and core of our ideology which is calling for two states for two people and a Jewish democratic state in defensible borders. That's because many Israelis believe this is the right way to go," Shai said.

Kadima had trailed Likud in the polls throughout the race, and Kadima's victory marks a dramatic comeback for the 50-year-old foreign minister. Livni's frequent talk on the campaign trail of hope and change, and her slogan "Belivni" — morphing her last name and "believe" — were obvious nods to Barack Obama's successful presidential campaign.

"At the end of the day, hope won," said Kadima strategist Lior Horev. "She never let go. I would say she's the comeback lady of Israeli politics."

But Likud leader Netanyahu also is claiming a governing mandate, underscoring the enormous challenge ahead for Livni in forming a viable coalition.

With 99 percent of the votes counted, Kadima came in first with 28 seats in the Knesset to Likud's 27 seats. Israel Beiteinu got 15 seats, a strong third-place finish for the relatively new party. The Labor Party, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, got 13 seats, a fourth-place historic low for a party that helped found the Jewish state and dominated politics there for more than three decades. Labor officials say the party's leadership is now debating its direction and assessing whether to go into the opposition or join a new coalition.

Early Wednesday in Tel Aviv, Likud leader Netanyahu, who served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, said the right-wing bloc — what he calls the national camp — won the right to form and lead a new coalition.

"God willing I will head the next government. I'm sure I would be able to form a good, broad and stable government that would be able to deal with the security crisis, the economic crisis, and will lead major reforms in education for Zionism and encourage excellence as we promised in the elections," the 59-year-old told supporters. "The strong rise of the national camp and the strong rise of the Likud mean only one thing: The people want a change."

Netanyahu said Likud would first turn "to our natural partners in the national camp ... to start discussions tomorrow for the forming of a new government in the state of Israel."

The leading Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth today showed pictures of both Netanyahu and Livni with the banner headline "I won."

Netanyahu also was set to meet Wednesday with Lieberman following talks with Eli Yishai, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which got 11 Knesset seats and remains an influential broker in coalition talks.

"We committed ourselves before the election to recommend Benjamin Netanyahu to the president," Yishai told Israel Army Radio today. "The people's choice is a rightist government. This, of course, doesn't rule anything out."

Few parties in Israel's fractious political system are ruling anything out. Lieberman now becomes the potential kingmaker in coalition talks.

"We want a nationalist government. We want a rightist government ... and we are not hiding this," Lieberman said. But he also said the party hasn't dismissed any options.

Kadima's Livni last year tried and failed to form a coalition after Prime Minister and then-Kadima leader Ehud Olmert resigned in the face of corruption allegations. Olmert remains prime minister in a caretaker role.

"When you are a centrist party you can draw on people from both the left and the right," Kadima's Horev said optimistically early Wednesday. "We can form it with Labor, we can form it with Likud, we can form it with Lieberman, and we can also form it with the ultra-Orthodox," he said.

Many others aren't so sure. "This election has brought us into a stalemate —total stalemate," said Arik Carmon, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. He calls the inconclusive election results a recipe for political deadlock.

"It's very hard to see how we can get out of this Gordian knot," he said.

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

"We need 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 a full four years. And we need to rehabilitate the trust of the Israeli public in politics," Carmon said.

Israeli President Shimon Peres soon will meet with all party leaders to gauge who Knesset 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.

The issues at stake for Israel are enormous, including fledgling peace talks with the West Bank Palestinian leadership and deep concerns over the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, as well as Iran's nuclear ambitions and the global economic crisis that has started to affect Israel's once robust high-tech economy.

Israeli and Hamas officials said indirect cease-fire talks, mediated by Egypt, will not stop despite the political limbo in the Jewish state. Civilians in Hamas-run Gaza are still reeling from Israel's recent 22-day military offensive, launched to stop militants there from launching rockets and mortar rounds into towns and cities in southern Israel. Some 1,300 Palestinians, according to Gaza doctors, were killed in the conflict. Thirteen Israelis were killed. A fragile cease-fire is in place, but sporadic rocket fire and Israeli airstrikes continue.

Livni has led peace talks with the West Bank leadership on a two-state solution to the conflict, negotiations President Obama has pledged to quickly help rejuvenate. But the election results could complicate that effort. Netanyahu has called the current talks improbable and instead wants financial incentives to improve the West Bank economy.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas this week said he is ready to work with any new Israeli government, but he warned that settlement expansion must stop or else "violence and terrorism will be knocking on our doors." Other Palestinian officials have called Netanyahu's economic ideas inadequate and an effort to beautify Israel's 41-year-old occupation of the West Bank.

West Bank Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad called on Israel to live up to its international obligations. "We imagine that the expectations of the international community [toward Israel] will be the same as ours," Fayyad said.

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