Centrist Kadima Party to Lead Israeli Government

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Ehud Olmert and Shimon Peres. Credit: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images. i

Acting Prime Minister and Kadima leader Ehud Olmert (L) celebrates the election results with former Prime Minister Shimon Peres early on Wednesday. Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
Ehud Olmert and Shimon Peres. Credit: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images.

Acting Prime Minister and Kadima leader Ehud Olmert (L) celebrates the election results with former Prime Minister Shimon Peres early on Wednesday.

Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declares victory for his centrist Kadima party in Israel's parliamentary elections. Kadima won 28 seats in the 120-member parliament. Olmert says he'd prefer a peace deal with Palestinians, but is ready to act unilaterally to define Israel's final borders.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

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

Voters in Israel have turned away from the right and left and towards a new centrist party. While the results in the Israeli election are being assessed, the new Hamas-led Palestinian government is being sworn in. We'll have more on that story from Ramallah in a moment.

First, to the Israeli election, where the centrist Kadima Party won the most seats in yesterday's election. That's a vote that many Israelis saw as a referendum on the future occupied West Bank. Kadima's 28 seats are enough to lead efforts to form a new ruling coalition, likely with the Labor Party, which came in a strong second. The party is headed by Ehud Olmert. In declaring a victory, Olmert vowed Israel would set the Jewish state's final borders on its own, if necessary, if peace talks with the Palestinians remain stalled.

From Jerusalem, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

Flanked by giant pictures of his mentor, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert took the stage at Kadima Party headquarters outside Jerusalem last night and declared that Israelis have embraced Kadima's centrist politics, quote, “in a loud and clear voice.”

He vowed to define the country's final borders by 2010 with a Jewish majority. It's our wish and prayer, Olmert said, that that would be achieved through a peace agreement. But he added, we won't wait forever, the time has come to act.

Prime Minister EHUD OLMERT (Kadima Party, Israel): (Speaking foreign language)

Prime Minister OLMERT: (Through translator) If the Palestinians agree to act soon, we will sit at the negotiating table, in order to create a new reality in our region. If they do not, Israel will take its fate into its own hands.

WESTERVELT: Olmert has said that would mean holding on to the large West Bank settlement blocks and unilaterally pulling out of a series of other settlements on land that Israel captured in the 1967 mid-east war. Olmert said last night he was prepared to make those painful compromises of uprooting some Jewish settlers in order to foster peace and a viable Palestinian state.

Many Israeli voters say with peace talks dead and the terrorist-labeled Hamas in power, the only way ahead is through non-negotiated withdrawals. Israel has ruled out talks with the Hamas-led Palestinian government unless the Islamist militants accept Israel's right to exist, renounce violence, and honor interim agreements.

Leonardo Berdacheski(ph) voted for Kadima and its plans at a West Jerusalem high school.

Mr. LEONARDO BERDACHESKI (Voter, Kadima Party): If we have someone to talk with him, it's better. Of course it's better. But if not, you have no other choice. You cannot continue living like that. We need peace.

WESTERVELT: Israel's once dominant right wing argued that Kadima's unilateralism will not bring about peace, but simply invite more terrorism.

Standing near her voting station in West Jerusalem, Likud supporter Jan Sofolovski(ph) says the non-negotiated Gaza Strip pullout last summer only emboldened Hamas and led to daily rocket fire from Gaza militants into southern Israel.

Ms. JAN SOFOLOVSKI (Supporter, Likud Party): This conflict may not have a solution, but to say that the solution is to give away my country to a worldwide terrorist organization is sick.

WESTERVELT: But Likud's tough-against-Hamas campaign never took off. Last night, the party which won the 2003 elections and has dominated the Israeli politics for almost 30 years suffered a crushing defeat. Likud came in fifth behind the ultranationalist, hard-lined Israel Beiteinu Party, led by former Likud protégé, Avigdor Lieberman, who could become the new leader of the right-wing opposition.

Kadima now sets to work forming a coalition, whose shape will likely determine whether Olmert can carry out the party's plans. A center-left partnership with the second-place Labor Party and others could capture 61 to 65 seats in the 120-seat parliament. Labor campaigned, emphasizing economic and social welfare issues. Kadima would still need the leftist Meretz Party, which won four seats, and help from the new Pensioners Party, which advocates increased benefits for the elderly, which won a surprising seven seats.

Kadima is almost certain to court the third-place, ultra-orthodox Shas Party, which won 13 seats. Analyst Yossi Klein Halevi, with the Shalem Center, says a center-left coalition could prove shaky, as Israelis want any land concessions to be done from a position of strength.

Mr. YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI (Shalem Center): That's why you need a combination of hawkishness on security and dovishness on territory, which is what Kadima's policy is. If Kadima is saddled with a left-wing coalition that won't allow it to be strong on security, the public will not go along with unilateral withdrawal.

WESTERVELT: But any Kadima right-wing coalition could prove equally problematic. So-called Likud rebels tried to block Ariel Sharon's Gaza pullout last year. Analysts called it one of the most important elections in Israel's history, with vital issues at stake. But the race was marked by voter disinterest and dispassion.

The 63 percent turnout was the lowest in Israel's history. Many say the apathy stems from the uncertainties of unilateralism, weariness at the decades old conflict, and disillusionment with politics, following corruption scandals and shifting party loyalties.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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