With Israeli vote count final, party negotiations intensify

Livni and Netanyahu are each vying to form a coalition. Soldiers' ballots did not change the outcome.

After counting all of the outstanding votes cast by soldiers and diplomats, Israel's election commission announced Thursday that the distribution of parliamentary seats remained exactly as initial exit polls had predicted, following a national ballot earlier this week that plunged the country's political system into deepening uncertainty.

The official results, with all ballots counted, failed to provide what some thought might be a reprieve from the state of political gridlock Israel finds itself in: the leaders of the two largest parties – Kadima's Tzipi Livni and Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu – both claiming the right to present a government and be the next prime minister.

With no change in the election arithmetic, there were intense negotiations among party leaders as each of the two tried to assemble a coalition to present.

The bottom line: Israelis chose more parties on the right than in the center or on the left. And with Ms. Livni's obvious partners to the left of the political map – Labor and Meretz – refusing to be in a government with any of the major right-wing parties, there seemed to be an increasing chance that the entire pro-peace process camp would become opposition politicians rather than leaders in Israel's next government.

Meir Sheetrit, Israel's interior minister from Kadima, said his party would sit in opposition rather than in an extreme right-wing government led by Mr. Netanyahu.

"We need to think about what's best for Israel and get away from the politics," Mr. Sheetrit said in an Army Radio interview. "Right now, it seems most likely that the government to be formed will be an extremist religious coalition led by Netanyahu."

Some here had hoped that by counting all of what are Israel's equivalent of absentee ballots, there might be some new push toward solving the complicated coalition puzzle left behind by Tuesday's elections. Livni, the foreign minister, won 28 of 120 Knesset seats as head of the Kadima party, but right-wing Netanyahu won 27. And although the head of the largest party is usually the one invited by the president to form a coalition government, rightist parties, who are natural coalition partners for a Netanyahu-run cabinet, now control 66 seats.

However, in Israel's highly factionalized political climate, the "doves vs. hawks" struggle is not the full story. Readers of some of the right-leaning parties have indicated that they are not prepared to join in a government coalition with Yisrael Beytenu, an ultranationalist party headed by Avigdor Lieberman, who has, for the first time, become the head of the third-largest party in Israel, with 15 seats.

Two parties that represent Orthodox Jews, Shas and United Torah Judaism, are now in negotiations with an eye toward unifying into one bloc. They would agree to join Netanyahu's government only if he excludes Lieberman. As a nonreligious politician from the former Soviet Union, Mr. Lieberman has promised his supporters he would rein in the rule of the rabbis in matters such as marriage, divorce, conversion, and burial.

Together, the two religious parties would have more seats than Yisrael Beytenu, therefore making it possible that Netanyahu would choose them over Lieberman.

Lieberman, for his part, has continued to meet with both Livni and Netanyahu and says he is not committed to joining either one of them.

On Thursday, Netanyahu met with the head of the National Union, a rightist party that represents many West Bank settlers and totally opposes reaching a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Party head Yaakov Katz said the week's election results would translate into the establishment of a government that would keep all of the "Land of the Israel," including the West Bank, under Israeli sovereignty.

"We are glad that finally, we now have a government that will be a natural, healthy, Land of Israel-based government," Katz told reporters.

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