Israel Exit Polls Indicate a Win for Kadima Party

Exit polls in Israel's elections are projecting that interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima party will win the most parliamentary seats, putting it in a position to form a coalition government. These are the first elections held since former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had a stroke in January.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Preliminary results from today's election in Israel have been released and they show the new center-right Kadima Party winning the largest block of seats in the country's Parliament. But the party, founded by Ariel Sharon before his massive stroke, will apparently not be able to govern on its own.

NPR's Eric Westervelt is at Kadima party headquarters just outside Jerusalem. He joins us now.

Eric, the head of the Kadima Party, interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmer, has addressed his supporters. What did he have to say?

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

Well, Olmert in his victory speech tonight said Kadima will work to define Israel's final borders by 2010. He said he'd prefer a negotiated peace deal with the Palestinians, but if one isn't possible, Israel will “take its fate in its own hands and will act without an agreement. It's time to act,” he said.

Olmert has outlined plans for more unilateral pullouts from the West Bank while consolidating Israel's hold on the main settlement blocks in the West Bank.

NORRIS: Could you take us through the preliminary results? I understand that voter turnout was the lowest in Israel's history.

WESTERVELT: That's right. It looks like turnout was just 63% of eligible voters, the lowest turnout in Israel's history. There were big issues at stake, Michele, but the campaign never really generated a lot of enthusiasm or passion among the voters. To the results, according to the Israeli media, with some 55% of the votes counted, Kadima has won 29 Parliament seats, Labor 21 and Likud 12. Perhaps coming in fourth, just behind the relatively new party, the hard line, right-wing Israel Home Party, they are the real surprise winner tonight, getting some 12 to 14 Parliament seats.

So it's been an extremely rough night for Likud, which has been a dominant force in Israeli politics for 30 years. Likud's leader Benjamin Netenjahu tonight called the loss a sever blow, but he vowed to rebuild the party. And it looks like Avigdor Lieberman, the head of the Israel (unintelligible), could become a big player in the next Parliament. He could even become the new opposition leader if he doesn't join in any coalition with Kadima.

NORRIS: Could you tell us a little bit more about Avigdor Lieberman?

WESTERVELT: Well, he's a 48-year-old former industry minister here. He came to Israel from Moldova. He speaks fluent Russian and he's worked hard to try to capture the important Russian vote and he apparently did pretty well among Russian voters tonight. His party had a good night, but it's not yet clear, Michele, what he and his party will do with their new power in Parliament. He advocates redrawing Israel's border to exclude most Israeli Arabs and he wants Israeli Arabs to take a loyalty oath and some in Labor and other parties likely to join in a Kadima coalition have called his ideas racist and extremist.

NORRIS: Now, as we said, Kadima will not be able to form a government of its own, what might that coalition look like?

WESTERVELT: Well, it's early, but they're almost certain to reach out and try and form a coalition with Labor, but they'll still need support of at least one or two smaller parties in order to form a majority. Perhaps Kadima would join with one of the smaller leftist parties such as Merit, whose leader tonight said they were open to joining Kadima, but “not at any price.” And Kadima's strategists tonight said the Pensioner's Party, this new group advocating increased benefits for the elderly, would be a natural coalition partner. And they did pretty well, they won about eight seats tonight. And as I said, the Israel (unintelligible) will be an important player perhaps in any future coalition building.

NORRIS: One last quick question before we let you go, Eric. What was the mood there at the Kadima Party headquarters tonight?

WESTERVELT: There was optimism and hope at headquarters, but it was tempered a little bit by the reality that they will need to work hard in the weeks ahead to form a coalition. It was not a resounding victory for them. It was a victory, but not quite as large as they had hoped.

NORRIS: Thank you, Eric.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

NORRIS: NPR's Eric Westervelt at Kadima Party headquarters outside Jerusalem.

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