Israel was yesterday planning to announce the final results of its gridlocked election after tallying soldiers’ votes that could tip the balance in the ongoing battle to lead the country.
More than 150,000 ballots, cast mainly in military camps, as well as in prisons and Israeli diplomat missions, were still in play after Tuesday’s national poll that left the prospect of Israel and the Palestinians making peace as distant as ever.
Political analysts have noted a shift to the right by troops in past voting, a trend they said could help hawkish Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu in his contest against Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of centrist Kadima.
Votes counted in civilian polling stations gave Kadima 28 seats to Likud’s 27, a margin that could change after the remaining military ballots are added to the equation.
Netanyahu said a strong rightist bloc elected to parliament meant he should be prime minister.
Livni cited Kadima’s lead in saying the post should be hers.
It is up to President Shimon Peres, after consultations with party leaders, to decide whether to tap Netanyahu, 59, a former prime minister, or Livni, 50, Israel’s chief peace negotiator with the Palestinians, to try to form a government.
If Netanyahu catches up to Livni after the remaining votes are counted, Peres would likely have no choice but to assign him the task, political commentators said.
A spokesman for the Israel Elections Committee said the final count would be announced at a news conference later yesterday.
The election results become official on Wednesday when they are published in the government gazette. Peres would then have a week to make his nomination and the candidate he chooses, 42 days to attempt to form a government.
As political parties began negotiating possible pacts on Wednesday, Israeli media said it seemed Peres would have no choice but to pick Netanyahu if majority rightists all back him.
But it would be the first time in Israel’s 60-year history that the winner of an election would be passed over.
Avigdor Lieberman’s far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, which surged to third place in the ballot with its demand to test the loyalties of Israeli Arabs, emerged as a potential king-maker.
He met Livni and Netanyahu on Wednesday, appearing to favor the latter, though he deferred any decision.
“We will clarify our positions and will do our part in putting together a cabinet as soon as possible,” he said after his talks with Livni.
Another linchpin party, the conservative Shas, held its own talks with Likud.
Danny Ayalon, one of the 15 Yisrael Beiteinu candidates elected to parliament, said yesterday: “Right now, everything is open.”
Netanyahu had been cruising ahead in opinion polls until Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government launched a military offensive against Hamas and other factions in the Gaza Strip to stop them firing rockets at towns in southern Israel.
The 22-day war cost 1,300 Palestinian lives versus 13 Israelis killed, but had massive public support.
The Palestinian Authority expressed dismay at the right’s strong showing.
“It’s obvious the Israelis have voted to paralyze the peace process,” senior negotiator Saeb Erakat said.
A spokesman for Hamas said voters had picked “the most bellicose candidates, those who are the most extremist in their rhetoric.”