JERUSALEM (AP) – After its victory in Israeli elections, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Kadima Party said Wednesday it would quickly form a broad ruling coalition that will carry out its plan to pull out of much of the West Bank and draw Israel’s borders by 2010.
Party officials said that despite a weaker-than-expected performance in Tuesday’s election, Kadima has widespread support in parliament.
Kadima won only 28 seats in Tuesday’s election, less than the 35 it had hoped for, but still making it the largest party in the 120-member parliament. Like every other ruling party in Israeli history, it will have to form a coalition government with other parties.
Haim Ramon, a senior Kadima lawmaker, told Israel Radio that the party is confident it will get broad backing for its withdrawal plan in parliament. “I believe we will have more than 70 legislators who will support the disengagement plan,” Ramon told Israel Radio, referring to the expected West Bank pullout.
Ramon was quoted as saying he expects Olmert to have a government in place after the Jewish holiday of Passover, which begins in mid-April.
Israel’s ceremonial president, Moshe Katsav, said Wednesday that he will start talking to party leaders next week about forming a coalition. Traditionally, the Israeli president gives the nod to the leader of the largest party to try to form a government.
“I assume there will be a stable government,” Katsav told Army Radio.
Declaring victory early Wednesday, Olmert renewed his call for peace talks with the Palestinians and said he is prepared to make painful compromises, such as uprooting some Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
“In the coming period, we will move to set the final borders of the state of Israel, a Jewish state with a Jewish majority,” Olmert said. “We will try to achieve this in an agreement with the Palestinians.” But he said Israel will act on its own if it cannot reach peace with the Palestinians. This scenario appears increasingly likely following the victory by Hamas’ victory in recent Palestinian legislative elections. The militant group’s new government, which rejects peace talks, was set to be sworn into office late Wednesday.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Wednesday the results of the Israeli election would have little effect unless Olmert agrees to peace talks. “We want negotiations and not to dictate unilateral solutions,” he said in Khartoum, Sudan, where he was attending an Arab Summit.
With 99.7 percent of the votes counted Wednesday, the center-left Labor captured 20 seats and the hawkish Likud, which had dominated Israeli politics for decades, plummeted to 11 seats, making it only the fifth-largest party in the new parliament.
Final results are expected Friday, officials said. But for the first time, Israel will not be led by Labor or Likud. The results showed voters turning away from conventional parties to an assortment of third parties.
Among them were Shas, a party catering to Orthodox Jews of Middle Eastern ancestry that won 13 seats; Yisrael Beitenu, a Russian immigrants’ party that wants to redraw Israel’s map by transferring Arab towns to Palestinian control, with 12 seats; and the new Pensioners’ Party, which won seven seats.
“The Big Bang,” said the headline in Israel’s two largest dailies, referring to the new political shakeup. The aftermath will likely be a period of difficult negotiations and potential coalition partners.
Olmert has said he would govern only with parties that accept his program. Likely partners include Labor, which ran on a social platform advocating a higher minimum wage and guaranteed pensions for the elderly; the Pensioners’ Party, which also advocates more benefits for retirees, and the dovish Meretz party.
Kadima also will likely target an ultra-Orthodox party, and receive tacit support from Arab parties that won 10 seats.
Tuesday’s vote was billed as a referendum on Olmert’s withdrawal plan, and analysts said Kadima’s lackluster performance could hinder, but not prevent, his ability to push forward.
“It will take a while to set up a coalition,” said Asher Arian, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank. “It will take a while to massage the partners into willingness to hear about very costly and independent, unilateral moves.” Olmert inherited Kadima leadership after Sharon, the country’s most popular politician, suffered a stroke in January and lapsed into a coma. Much of Kadima’s campaign was built around Sharon.
After a cautious transition period, Olmert laid out his own political program, saying he would aim to draw Israel’s final borders by 2010, with or without an agreement with the Palestinians.
Under Olmert’s plan, Israel would unilaterally dismantle dozens of settlements deep in the West Bank, while beefing up major settlement blocs and incorporating them inside Israel’s borders.
While handing over large chunks of the West Bank to the Palestinians, the plan falls short of Palestinian claims to all of the territory. Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war.
The go-it-alone approach follows Sharon’s unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip last summer. With peacemaking at a standstill, Sharon said Israel had to “disengage” from the Palestinians to improve security and guarantee its future as a Jewish democracy.
Hawkish parties that oppose concessions to the Palestinians fared poorly, winning just 32 seats. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister, was among the biggest losers. The party’s drop, from 38 seats to 11, was summed up by a headline in Yediot: “The crash.”
“We have no doubt that the Likud suffered a hard blow,” Netanyahu told his party activists. He blamed Sharon, who bolted Likud to form Kadima, for leaving behind “a broken and shattered party.” Netanyahu vowed to lead the party back to glory, despite calls by some activists for his ouster.
Meanwhile, Abbas, a moderate who favors peace talks, must deal with the new Hamas legislature. Hamas opposes peace talks and has rejected international calls to renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.
Incoming Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told Al-Jazeera television that he opposed Olmert’s plan. “Such a plan definitely won’t be accepted by the Palestinian people or the Palestinian government,” he said.