TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel's right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu and the moderate Tzipi Livni were locked in a fight for the premiership of a new government, following Tuesday’s cliffhanger result in the national parliamentary elections.
It is possible the two leaders will be forced to compromise and together share power in rotation, which has been done before in Israel in 1984.
The crucial elections and current efforts to form a new government come just weeks after a destructive military offensive in Gaza and amid serious questions as to whether the Israeli-Palestinian peace process can ever be reassembled.
Each of the leading contestants, the dovish Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of the Kadima Party and the hawkish former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud, maintained they deserve to be the next prime minister.
Livni based her claim on the fact Kadima will be the biggest faction in the next Knesset (parliament) with 29 mandates.
Netanyahu countered that will head the biggest bloc comprising several right wing, nationalist and religious factions that together will command 65 seats in the 120-member legislature. The left wing, dovish and Arab lists that would favor Livni will have the support of only 55 legislators.
The figures are based on an almost complete count of all the votes. Officials still have to count the votes of the soldiers, diplomats and disabled people. Those votes are not likely to drastically change the overall picture but when the results are so close — such as the one mandate advantage Kadima has over the Likud — the change could be significant.
Tuesday’s elections clearly show a shift towards hawkish nationalist parties that won 15 seats more than in the previous elections in 2006.
The returns express the bad mood in the country following years of rocket attacks from Gaza and "the inconclusive feeling" over the results of the recent battles in the Gaza Strip, according to Shlomo Avineri, a professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Israelis feel "besieged," a feeling that causes people to move to the right, he said.
In the final days before the elections, Livni attempted to stem the tide with optimistic talk about prospects for peace. Some Arab countries consider the main threats to be Iran and extremist Islam, not Israel, she said last week at the Herzliya Conference near Tel Aviv.
"There is a strategic change here. An historical opportunity," she stressed. Referring to her year-long negotiations with Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, she said an agreement "is reachable. We cannot afford to miss the opportunity."
Netanyahu, on the other hand, stressed the need to topple the Islamic Hamas regime in Gaza. He opposed territorial concessions in the West Bank.
"Any territory that we will evacuate today, or in the foreseeable future, will be seized by (the Islamic Hamas) proxies. The Palestinian Authority's forces are not strong enough to fight terror. Therefore, if we get out, the extremists will move in," he warned.
But while Netanyahu’s bloc could claim to better represent the overall mood in the country, a coalition comprising only those parties could be a nightmare for Netanyahu.
At a time when Israel needs international support in its efforts to bloc Iran’s nuclear program, and for its attempt to boycott the Islamic Hamas in Gaza, the last thing Netanyahu needs is a hard-line government in which his partners would tie his hands, prevent any concessions and anger the new U.S. administration of President Barack Obama.
That is why Netanyahu would prefer a coalition with centrist parties including Kadima.
Livni, too, is in a bind since she could win a majority in the Knesset only of she co-opts several nationalist or religious factions. Wednesday she began consultations with Avigdor Liberman, of the nationalist Israel Beitenu, that emerged third in the elections.
Her immediate goal would be to coax enough parties to recommend her as the next prime minister when President Shimon Peres begins consultations with all the factions. Those consultations are expected to begin next week.
Livni and Netanyahu could form the basis for a center-led coalition and Hebrew University Professor Shlomo Avineri noted that the nuances between them are “not that great.” However, they would have to agree on who would be number one and at the moment neither seems ready to concede.
The solution might be a rotation in which Livni would be prime minister for part of the Knesset's tenure and Netanyahu would lead the government during the other part. Israel has successfully tried that sort of rotating leadership, in 1984. Peres himself has a first hand experience with that arrangement. It enabled him to become prime minister.
Now, as president, he could be the neutral disinterested statesman working for a compromise.
But the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would not improve, Avineri predicted.
"The gap between the most moderate Israeli elements and the most moderate Palestinians is very deep," he said.
The next Israeli government will either be as moderate as the outgoing government or less so, he predicted.