Text size

With a clear advantage to the rightist bloc in Israel's national elections Tuesday, Benjamin Netanyahu could well end up as the next prime minister, regardless of whether his Likud party won the most votes or came second to centrist Kadima and Tzipi Livni.

Late Tuesday night, Netanyahu began contacts with several right-wing parties, including Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu.

By law, the president must consult with all the parties as to who they prefer as prime minister, and 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.

In terms of blocs, all three TV exit polls predicted a rightist bloc of 63 or 64 seats out in the 120-strong Knesset, compared to 57 or 56 for the leftist bloc. And of the leftist bloc, 9 or 10 seats belong to the Arab parties - some of which have already announced that they do not intend to recommend either Netanyahu or Livni for prime minister.

Until recently, the polls had showed Likud leading Kadima by a comfortable margin. Over the past couple of weeks, however, it lost votes steadily to Yisrael Beiteinu, and as the gap in the polls narrowed - putting victory within Kadima leader Tzipi Livni's grasp - many leftist voters who had originally planned to vote for other parties switched to Kadima in the hope of enabling her to become the next premier rather than Netanyahu.

While both Kadima and Likud cautioned that it was necessary to await the final results, both did their best to spin the results in their favor. Kadima insisted that its apparent emergence as the largest party showed that the public wanted Livni as prime minister. Likud countered that the victory for the rightist bloc overall was a clear repudiation of the current Kadima-led government's policies and a vote for a Netanyahu-led government.

Both parties rejected the idea of sharing power via a rotation government.

At Labor Party headquarters, in contrast, the atmosphere was one of unrelieved gloom: The party had been fighting desperately to hang onto third place, and it apparently lost the battle. Before the vote, party chairman Ehud Barak had been angling for the post of defense minister under either Netanyahu or Livni. But Labor officials said Tuesday night that the party's poor showing made it virtually impossible for it to join a Netanyahu government.