Israeli Elections End in Stalemate

The front pages of Israel's newspapers say it all today.

Pictures of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu split the front page of Ma'ariv ; Livni, proclaimed for her comeback from a seemingly hopeless pre-election deficit and Netanyahu, for his leadership of a large right-wing bloc in the new Knesset.

On Tuesday night, with Livni heading for a one-seat advantage, both claimed election victory in front of their supporters in Tel Aviv.

"I won," read the headline of Yedioth Ahronoth, the country's biggest newspaper, next to photos of both leaders.

But some commentators said the rival claims showed Israel had lost because of Tuesday's election that was too close to call. "One thing is clear to all Israeli voters," the paper's Eitan Haber said. "The political system is shattered."

Both believe they should be given the right to form Israel's next government. Throughout the country's 60-year history, the leader of Israel's largest party in parliament has been the one who gets that job. But this time it may be different.

The majority of seats in the parliament will be occupied by members of nationalist and right-wing parties, which will make it easier for Netanyahu to pull together a stable government of like-minded partners.

During his appearance Tuesday night in front of conservative Likud supporters in Tel Aviv, it was a point he was quick to make, perhaps to mask his loss of such a commanding pre-election lead. "The people of Israel have spoken loud and clear," he said. "The national bloc headed by the Likud has won a significant advantage."

Livni, with her credentials as head of the centrist Kadima Party and her desire to negotiate peace with moderate Palestinians, will find it hard to build a workable coalition, despite winning the most votes.

But that didn't seem to affect her mood this morning as she set off for the first of many secret meetings: "The people have a choice, I feel a great responsibility to use the strength I received last night to unite the people," she said.

The third party's candidate and surprise of this campaign will wield enormous influence in the next few days.

The support of Avigdor Lieberman, the so-called "kingmaker," from the extremist right wing party Israel Beiteinu (meaning "Israel, our home," in Hebrew) will prove crucial to either candidate.

The Kingmaker Speaks

An immigrant from the former Soviet republic of Moldova, Lieberman has run his campaign on a platform of nationalism and his slogan "No Loyalty, No Citizenship" is a direct threat against Israel's Arab minority.

His followers have long been unwilling partners in the Jewish state and many Israeli Jews resent their often open support for the Palestinian cause.

"We want a nationalist government," Lieberman said. "We want a rightist government ... and we are not hiding this."

"It is clear that we need to form a government as fast as possible. The state of Israel has been paralyzed for half a year. ... People may not be aware, but we are still without a budget ... in conditions of global financial crisis."

He said he had met Livni and would meet with Netanyahu to "explore our positions fast."

Many Palestinians were pessimistic about the chances of any Israeli government helping their cause.

"I am not optimistic about the next Israeli prime minister," said Osman al-Natsheh, a shop owner in Hebron. "They have different faces but the same policy. Livni or Netanyahu, who would think of giving Palestinians their land back?"

Office employee Ali Zaidan of Ramallah, the seat of Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, said, "Israelis voted for the right and against peace. We will not see progress in the peace process in the coming years."

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, appeared determined to maintain dialogue on the tattered peace process with Israel's next prime minister.

"I'll talk with whatever government emerges in Israel," Abbas was quoted as telling Italy's La Repubblica. "The ascent of the Israeli right does not worry us."

"Take for example, Netanyahu. In the past, he took important steps, he signed two accords with us."

The decision is in the hands of President Shimon Peres, who reportedly has no choice but to tap Netanyahu if the majority rightist parties all back him. In the coming days he will talk with the leaders of all the factions to hear their recommendations. Most of them are likely to tell him that Netanyahu is their man.

Some Israelis are hoping for a compromise. Perhaps Livni will be willing to join Netanyahu in a national unity government. That would certainly give greater credibility to the next government, but it is hard to see how it would be any better qualified to make peace with either the Palestinians or the Syrians.

The Worst of Both Worlds

The political stalemate will not please anxious observers in the White House and U.S. State Department, keen as they are on kick-starting a proper peace process. No matter what extravagant deals may be cut here in the next few weeks, it is hard to imagine a strong peace-seeking government emerging.

"The Obama administration is going to inherit the worst of both worlds," former U.S. mediator Aaron David Miller said.

"They have already inherited a dysfunctional Palestinian house, made worse by Gaza, and now what they are inheriting is a dysfunctional Israeli house."

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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