After an inconclusive general election Tuesday seemed likely to send Israel into political limbo, Kadima leader Tzipi Livni met with Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman in Jerusalem on Wednesday in a bid to build a coalition.
Kadima won 28 of 120 Knesset seats in Tuesday's vote, putting it narrowly ahead of the rightist Likud, which garnered 27 seats. Both Livni and Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu claimed victory Tuesday night, each arguing the right to form and lead the next government. The two parties began intensive efforts Wednesday to form rival coalitions.
The far-right Yisrael Beiteinu came in third place, winning 15 seats with its anti-Arab, anti-religious platform, and securing the position of kingmaker in the formation of the next government. The once dominant Labor, led by Ehud Barak, came a dismal fourth with 13 seats.
Livni told Lieberman on Wednesday that the people had made their choice for the next prime minister, and it was her that they had chosen.
She said that now was the time for unity, and for the Yisrael Beiteinu leader to advance his agenda. The pair agreed to hold further talks.
Speaking before the meeting, Livni vowed to fight to become the next prime minister.
"The people chose me in droves. I feel a great responsibility to translate the power that has been given to me into action, to advance the country and to unify the people," said Livni from her Tel Aviv home.
Kadima's narrow lead makes it uncertain whether Livni will be able to put together the 61-seat bloc needed to form a government. Netanyahu has a better chance of forging a coalition because of gains by right-wing parties, his natural allies.
Early Wednesday, Lieberman said he was leaving his options open, indicating he could jump either way. Yisrael Beiteinu was to convene later Wednesday to discuss its coalition options.
The outgoing coalition chairman, Kadima MK Yoel Hasson, said Wednesday morning that a team would begin negotiations immediately in order to forge a Livni-led coalition.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, was also due to meet Wednesday afternoon with Lieberman, after talks with Shas leader Eli Yishai, whose ultra-Orthodox party received 11 seats.
Yishai on Wednesday morning told Army Radio that, "We committed ourselves before the election to recommend Benjamin Netanyahu to the president. The people's choice is a rightist government. This, of course, doesn't rule anything out."
The Shas leader was referring to President Shimon Peres legal obligation to consult with all the parties as to who they prefer as prime minister, after which whoever is recommended by more Knesset members is given the nod. Hence if the religious and rightist parties all recommend Netanyahu, he would get first crack at forming a government.
Peres will meet next week with party leaders to hear their recommendations, and around February 20 expects to assign the task, presidential spokeswoman Ayelet Frisch said.
Yisrael Beiteinu sources: We won't rule out joining coalition with Shas
Sources in Yisrael Beiteinu said Wednesday their party was not ruling out joining a coalition that included Shas. The announcement came despite Lieberman's pledge Tuesday that he would not forget Shas' attacks on his party and himself.
On Saturday night Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef said that, "Whoever votes for Lieberman gives strength to Satan."
Should the two rightist parties succeed in putting their antagonism behind them, Netanyahu would likely find coalition-building significantly easier.
"We aren't making an ultimatum," said a senior Yisrael Beiteinu official. "It also doesn't matter from our point of view that Bibi's first meeting is actually with Shas. Everything depends on the fundamentals."
Although most of the ballots were counted by Wednesday morning, the final results may not be known until Thursday afternoon, when election officials finish counting the soldiers' votes and other absentee ballots.
There are about 150,000 eligible absentee voters, so if the race remains close their votes could be decisive. In past elections, the soldiers' vote has often leaned rightward.
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