Battle for Israel as Netanyahu claims power despite party loss

Exit polls show Livni’s party ahead but facing struggle to form government
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The Independent Online

Benjamin Netanyahu triggered a convulsive power struggle for the leadership of Israel last night by claiming the right to be Prime Minister despite election exit polls predicting that Tzipi Livni's Kadima party would be the biggest in the Israeli parliament.

All three TV channels reported Ms Livni had won a surprise personal victory by coming from behind in a knife-edge contest to secure two more seats in yesterday's election than the right-wing Likud opposition led by Mr Netanyahu, who is bidding to return to the office he held from 1996-99.

Mr Netanyahu's determination to lead his country again was based on results from the same polls predicting that strengthened right-wing bloc in the Knesset would command up to 65 seats compared with a maximum of 57 on the centre and left from where Ms Livni would draw to form a coalition.

The new right-wing Knesset majority, in which Likud appears to have more than doubled its showing in the 2006 elections, is likely to make it even more difficult for US President Barack Obama to realise stated hopes of progress towards peace in the Middle East.

Assuming the exit poll findings are borne out by results – and that cannot be a certainty given the narrowness of the margins – the hard-right politician, Avigdor Lieberman, is expected to play a "kingmaker" role after securing 13 to 15 seats. His Yisrael Beiteinu party pushed the once-dominant Labour Party into a humiliating fourth place for the first time in its history.

Ms Livni, facing an uphill struggle to form a government for the second time since becoming Kadima leader last year, would almost certainly need the support of Mr Lieberman and possibly of the right-wing ultra-orthodox party Shas. But the other pivotal figure is the Israeli President, Shimon Peres, who will have to decide next week whom to invite to form a government. Although the leader of the biggest party has always before been asked to form a government first, he would be constitutionally within his rights to invite Mr Netanyahu to do so if he thought he alone was able to form a coalition.

One intriguing possibility figuring in speculation last night was a repeat of the rotating premiership between Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir and Mr Peres himself in 1984, when Mr Peres also became leader of the Knesset's biggest party butdid not command a majority.

But Mr Netanyahu left no doubt early today in a Likud headquarters speech notable for its victorious tone that he intended to govern throughout the parliament. The rise of both Likud and the wider "national" right wing bloc "has only one meaning", he said. "The people want a change. The people want to follow a different path. Our path has won, and it is the path that will lead the people. With God's help, I will lead the next government."

Mr Netanyahu added that he had already agreed in calls with other right wing leaders to hold coalition-building talks and he would turn to "our natural partners in the national camp". He would then turn to other Zionist parties to "unite all the forces ... and to lead the State of Israel on a new path".

Sounding equally victorious however Ms Livni shortly afterwards told her own party: "Today the people chose Kadima. We will form the next government led by Kadima." In terms that were read as repeating a call for a unity coalition with Likud and Labour she recalled she had already asked Mr Netanyahu before the election to join her in a national unity government, but he had said the people must first decide. She added that the people had decided – for Kadima.

Meanwhile Mr Lieberman boasted to supporters that his party was "the key to the next government". In terms to cheer Mr Netanyahu, he said that "our heart's tendency is undoubtedly a national government and a right-wing government" and that he would "not agree to any arrangement, direct or indirect, in which Hamas remains in power. The Hamas regime must be toppled". But he kept his options open, saying that he had already spoken to Mr Netanyahu and Ms Livni, adding: "We do not disqualify anyone."

Amid continuing the uncertainty about the intentions of Mr Lieberman, one of Ms Livni's leading Kadima allies, Finance Minister Roni Bar-On, countered that, declaring: "The people have spoken: they want Tzipi Livni. As for setting up an extreme right government: not only does it have no legitimacy abroad, it has none in Israel."

Voting in yesterday's election was brisk, despite rainstorms, with turnout around 65 percent. The final pre-election polls had shown Mr Netanyahu's lead over Ms Livni narrowing to two seats after a seepage of his support to Mr Lieberman, who wants Israeli Arabs to pass a "loyalty" test to vote. Arab protests against Israel's invasion of Gaza last month are thought to have strengthened Mr Lieberman's support. Seeking to reverse that leakage, Mr Netanyahu had said: "Anyone who wants change should vote Likud."

Exit polls

Kadima 30

Labour 13

Yisrael Beiteinu 15

Source: Channel 10

Total left bloc 57

Total left bloc 65

Total needed to govern is 61