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Israel's Parties In Coalition Talks


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

A stalemate, a deadlock - whatever you call it - yesterday's parliamentary elections in Israel have ended with uncertainty. With 99 percent of the votes counted, it is unclear who will be the next prime minister. The centrist Kadima Party, led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, gained the largest block of seats in the Israeli Parliament, but by the narrowest of margins. The right-wing Likud bloc, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is close behind.

And the parties will now have to jockey for position in a new government. NPR's Eric Westervelt joins us now from Jerusalem. Eric, Kadima won the largest single block of seats in parliament, but many analysts are predicting a right-leaning coalition led by Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu. Why the skepticism that Tzipi Livni can form some sort of coalition?

ERIC WESTERVELT: Well, Michele, she tried last year to form a coalition after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced his resignation, following some corruption allegations, and she just couldn't pull it off. A key hurdle was the ultra-Orthodox parties who Livni said were demanding too high a political and a financial price to join together in her coalition effort. And this time around, again, Michele, it appears, you know, she may not have the support.

She just doesn't have the numbers from leftists and religious parties to form a coalition. I mean, given the rough and tumble of Israel's parliamentary coalition system, every coalition leader needs these smaller parties and ones that, here, she may not even be ideologically in agreement with. And for Livni, once again, she'll be hard-pressed to cobble together something that can please everyone.

NORRIS: The Israel Our Homeland Party came in third in the parliamentary elections. Does that mean that this party will play the role of power broker in these coalition talks?

WESTERVELT: Absolutely. Avigdor Lieberman last night and again today said, you know, he'd prefer a right-wing coalition with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, but he also didn't rule out anything. He said he's keeping his options open and, really, he's in the driver seat. He came in a strong third with 15 seats in parliament. And Michele, to underscore just how important this ultra-nationalist right-wing candidate will be in any coalition talks, both Livni and Netanyahu today flocked to see him to try to persuade him that they offer the best deal in any potential coalition. Lieberman agreed to hold more talks with Livni in coming days, and he's scheduled to meet with Netanyahu, as well.

NORRIS: If Likud's Netanyahu gets to form the coalition that he has said that he's wanted - a broad-based national unity government, how might he achieve that?

WESTERVELT: It'll be a challenge for him, as well. I mean, Likud advisors say a key lesson from Netanyahu's first stint as prime minister, Michele, in the late '90s, is that a narrow right-wing coalition, which is what he had back then, can be a recipe for failure. He was often at odds on key foreign policy issues with the Clinton administration on important issues of peace talks with the Palestinians, and he was voted out of office. And so, this time around he wants a broad-based unity government, but it's not clear that he can pull it off.

The ultra-Orthodox party, they support Likud, but they detest the secular right-wing Lieberman who really built his campaign this time around an anti-Arab and an anti-religious rhetoric. So, the Shas Party spiritual leader told supporters before the election that a vote for Lieberman amounts to, in his words, a vote for the devil. So Netanyahu has his work cut out for him forging even this narrow coalition of the right-wing.

NORRIS: Eric, the Israeli Labor Party finished in fourth place. It was an historic low for a party that helped found the state of Israel. What's next for that once dominant center-left party?

WESTERVELT: Well, Michele, we're told there's an intense debate within the Labor Party on whether to go into the opposition now, and rebuild, and reassess and try to come back stronger next time or whether to join one of the coalition options. It's telling that almost every Labor official, except the top leader, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, has said Labor should not join in a coalition that includes Avigdor Lieberman.

Others in Labor say, come on, we have to stand for something. We have to make changes. We have to rebuild and not simply go along with whatever coalition offers us the best deal in terms of cabinet positions.

NORRIS: From Ehud Barak to President Barack Obama, what do these elections results mean for the Obama administration's plan to revive Arab-Israeli peacemaking?

WESTERVELT: I think it's certainly going to complicate those efforts. Tzipi Livni has said these talks should continue, and she's led these talks, but Benjamin Netanyahu has questioned the worth of these talks and said he's instead talking about an economic peace with West Bank Palestinians.

NORRIS: Thank you very much, Eric.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

NORRIS: That was NPR's Eric Westervelt speaking to us from Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.