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You’ve set my mind at ease

peresnetanyahuIsrael’s political picture has been so unclear and complicated since an indecisive Feb. 10 election that President Shimon Peres said he asked right-wing leader Benjamin Netanyahu to put it down on paper that he had in fact agreed to accept his mandate to go out and form the next Israeli government.

“And he has put it in writing, so now my mind is at ease,” Peres joked as he announced his decision to designate Netanyahu, rather than centrist Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, as potential prime minister — once he completes that task of coalition building.

Livni’s Kadima party had outpolled Netanyahu’s Likud, winning 28 seats in parliament to his 27. But Peres chose Netanyahu for the job of would-be prime minister because Netanyahu, a former prime minister, had the most other parliament members recommending him for the job.

But as much as Netanyahu, U.S.-educated and a polished speaker, wanted another shot at the nation’s top job, he certainly had a complex task ahead of him to rebuild a coalition with politicians whose views were disquietingly similar to the far-right lawmakers who effectively toppled his previous government in 1999 and forced an early election.

Team of rivals for Israel?

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Coalition-building in the aftermath of Israel’s inconclusive Feb. 10 election kicks into high gear on Wednesday, when the final results become official and President Shimon Peres begins sounding out party leaders on whom he should appoint to try to form the next administration.

To recap: neither the centrist Kadima party led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni nor Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud won enough seats for a majority in the 120-member parliament. Kadima took 28 seats to Likud’s 27, but Netanyahu could stand a better chance of getting the nod from Peres because he is likely to have the support of a majority right-wing bloc of 65 legislators.

Army disappoints Bibi, the battle goes on

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An Israeli election official holds a ballot for the Likud party while tallying votes at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem February 12, 2009.  REUTERS/Baz Ratner

“When the soldiers’ votes come in, we will be way ahead.” So forecast a senior aide to Israeli right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu just after shock exit poll findings on Tuesday showing his Likud party trailing the centrist Kadima of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni by one seat. But that result, which overturned months of opinion polls in Netanyahu’s favour, turned out to be bang on the money. Throughout Thursday, Likud supporters were banking on votes from army barracks. These were being counted a day after those of civilians and Likud had hoped that a traditional right-wing bias in the military would be enough to turn the election around and give Netanyahu the advantage – a crucial one in terms of persuading President Shimon Peres that Netanyahu, not Livni, should be invited to form a government coalition.

It wasn’t to be. As the elections committee in parliament finally faced the media, over an hour late, and then flustered through their notes on live television to declare the result, it turned out the initial result still stood. Kadima on 28 votes, Likud on 27 in the 120-seat Knesset. So, it’s all over? Not by a long way. The result isn’t absolutely final until it’s published in the official gazette next Wednesday. And from that point Peres has a week to designate someone to form a government. Livni tried and failed in November, triggering this election. Netanyahu, popularly known by his nickname ’Bibi’, says there has been a general rightward shift in the election. That has included a surge for the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu (Our Home is Israel) of Avigdor Lieberman, which elbowed past Labour into third place on 15 seats. That, Netanyahu says, gives him a better chance of forming a stable administration. Perhaps. But in 60 years, Israel’s largely ceremonial president has never passed over the leader of the party that has topped the polls. Cue more intensive negotiation. Watch this space.

Can Israel do a power-share?

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A predawn victory party for Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni had all the trappings of a fairytale, including a ballroom setting in a Tel Aviv hotel.

The woman who had edged ahead of rival Benjamin Netanyahu in a national election stood to become Israel’s first woman prime minister in 30 years, and she had surely beaten the odds to get there, just weeks after polls predicted a resounding defeat for her centrist Kadima party.

Israel votes, Palestinians groan

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Posted by Wafa Amr.

PALESTINIANS-ISRAEL/With each Israeli election since the 1993 historic Palestinian-Israeli interim peace deals, the Palestinians feel their situation has gone from bad to worse. This time, their sense of desperation deepened as they woke up to an Israeli political map strongly dominated by the right wing. People say the chances for peace and ending occupation seem more remote than ever. The editor-in-chief of the Palestinian official al-Hayat daily newspaper, Hafez al-Barghouthi, called the growing strength of the right-wingers in Israel the “Right-wing Tsunami”. Israel’s shift to the right has added to the Palestinians’ sense of hopelessness. “The victory of the Israeli right means an open invitation for the Palestinian factions to turn fanatic to confront the advocates of settlements and land theft,” Barghouthi wrote on election day.

Tzipi Livni’s centrist Kadima party led in Tuesday’s election with 28 seats, one seat over Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud in the 120-member parliament. The centre-left Labour party, which made peace with the Palestinians 16 years ago, suffered a heavy blow. The rise of Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party who has vowed to keep settlements and advocates tougher measures with the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, has added to the Palestinians’ despair.

I won! No, I did…

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i-won It sounds like the perfect outcome – no losers in Israel’s parliamentary election. Of course, it’s nothing of the sort. “I won!” screams this headline in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. Trouble is, that’s both main party leaders saying it - Tzipi Livni and Benjamin Netanyahu.

It’s a recipe for trouble and it will be down to Israel’s veteran president, 85-year-old Shimon Peres to sort it out. In sum, Livni of the ruling Kadima centrists, has a one-seat lead over former premier Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud. But neither party has as much as a quarter of the seats in the Knesset. Cue possibly weeks of haggling among the parties on forming a coalition government. By tradition, Peres ought to ask the leader of the biggest party – thus far, Livni – to try and build a cabinet first. But Netanyahu, rejecting her offer of joining her in a national unity government, says that overall the new parliament has a right-wing majority and that he is therefore in the better position to forge a stable administration.

Peres is no stranger to Israel’s convoluted coalition arithmetic. In 1984, he agreed to one of the weirdest election outcomes seen when, as left-wing Labour party leader, he did a deal with Yitzhak Shamir of Likud whereby the two spent two years each as prime minister during the four-year term of the parliament. There has been talk again today of the famous “rotation”, though few remember it with much fondness and recall a time of general political stalemate. Anxious to push for peace in the Middle East after Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip last month, new U.S. President Barack Obama will be among those concerned at the gridlock.

It ain’t over

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A lesser blog than this one might resort to some trite cliche about how ‘it ain’t over until the fat lady sings’.

We will refrain – but it is tempting.

Despite taking the most Knesset seats according to exit polls after Israelis went to the polls – Tzipi Livni is still a long way from being anointed as Israel’s new Prime Minister.

Like a hurricane…

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Amid fears that voters would stay away from Israel’s polling stations because of bad weather, apathy born of a coalition-based political system that forces elections every two years or so and a lacklustre campaign overshadowed by the Gaza war – you knew at least these guys would show up at the ballot box.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert and Avigdor Lieberman all voted early - hoping that their supporters would follow them to the polling stations.

Tzipi Livni – man of the moment?

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jfl_mg_7797-2Sex has rarely been far from centre-stage in an otherwise low-key campaign for Israel’s election on Tuesday. The fact that the ruling Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni is a woman has, however, been largely debated by allusion and suggestion, often in a  far from gentlemanly way in the still macho world of Israeli politics. So it’s striking then, in the campaign’s final days, to see Livni herself, bidding to become the country’s first woman leader since Golda Meir in the 1970s, putting the issue front and centre. Take a look at this poster, photographed in Jerusalem by my colleague Jerry Lampen.  It reads, in French, “Tzipi Livni – Man of the Moment”, or perhaps “The Right Man for the Job”. It looks like a direct response to repeated attacks from right-wing opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu especially that “she” is not ready to lead a country facing threats on numerous fronts. “She’s not up to the job,” runs one ad from Netanyahu’s Likud party. It shows Livni, slumped, with her head in her hands.

On Tuesday at 10 p.m.  (2000 GMT) we should know if Livni has been able to turn around Netanyahu’s opinion poll lead. Even if she does, it is not guaranteed that she can form a coalition government. The reason this election is being held over a year early is because Livni, taking over from the corruption-hit Ehud Olmert, was unable to cobble together a workable coalition. As my colleague Jeffrey Heller had predicted when she took over her party’s leadership, many believed the former soldiers running the other leading parties found it hard to accept her. Some saw the refusal of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to join her cabinet as a reflection of religious sexism. That wasn’t the official reason. But Livni, a secular denizen of liberal Tel Aviv, did go out of her way, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to appeal to religious tradition. She donned monochrome clothing and swapped her favoured pant suits for long skirts when meeting Shas leaders. Even so, the Orthodox press would not even print her picture. They would airbrush her out of group photos. Or, as for other women, they might photoshop her into “a tree, or something”, one journalist at an ultra-Orthodox paper told my colleague Dan Williams.

A yawning gap

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With just two days to go before Israel’s general election, opinion polls show more than a quarter of the electorate is still undecided.

Call it the yawning gap in an election race that’s largely been one big snooze.

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