JERUSALEM – The centrist Kadima party, headed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni,
was leading in three exit polls late Tuesday night following national elections in Israel, offsetting months of expectations that the lion's share of votes would be won by right-wing Likud leader,
Ms. Livni's Kadima was predicted to have won between 29 and 30 seats in the 120-seat parliament, compared with 27 to 28 for Netanyahu's Likud party.
If the polls turn out to be accurate on Wednesday, when the official results are expected to be announced, Livni will be invited by Israel's president to form a coalition government. That could make Livni the first female prime minister Israel has had since the 1970s, when Golda Meir led the country.
But even if the projected results are confirmed, Livni faces an uphill battle in trying to form a coalition, especially one that could be expected to pursue a peacemaking agenda with the
Palestinians and with Israel's Arab neighbors. Doing quick coalition math, analysts saw that there was not a sufficient number of centrist and left-wing parties to form a government. To build a
coalition, she would either need to bring in the rival Likud party, or the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitainu (Israel is Our Home), led by Avigdor Lieberman, which has now become Israel's third-largest party with approximately 15 seats.
"It'll be more difficult for Livni than for Netanyahu despite the surveys, because he has natural coalition partners in the radical right, and she doesn't. Without those 15 seats with Lieberman's
party, she has no way of forming a government," says Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "Likud and all these right-wing parties can just wait on the sidelines and refuse to cooperate with her, and in the meantime, work to form their own government instead."
Livni, as head of the winning party, would have 42 days to form a government. But if Netanyahu can
in the meantime piece together a coalition of right-wing parties who hold 61 of the 120 seats, the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, would have no choice but to give him the right to form a government instead.
"That is clearly what Netanyahu is going to try to do for the next few days," Mr. Wolfsfeld says. A senior Likud official confirmed late Tuesday night that there were already efforts under way to form a bloc
of rightist parties that could keep Livni from being able to form a coalition.
Livni's camp insisted that its leader would succeed in presenting a national unity government, include Kadima, Labor, and Likud. "The mandate is hers, and she will form this government," Eyal Arad, one of Livni's top advisers, said in an interview with Israel's Channel One.