Likud, Kadima dig in after Israel publishes final poll results

Israel's two largest parties dug in Friday and insisted they each be allowed to form the next government, after final election results published overnight confirmed they were only one mandate apart, dpa reported.

The ruling Kadima party of centrist Tzipi Livni won 28 mandates in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel's parliament, against 27 for the opposition Likud of hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu, Central Elections Commission (CEC) chairman Eliezer Rivlin announced Thursday night.

The ultra-nationalist Israel Beiteinu of Moldovan-born Avigdor Lieberman came in third with 15 mandates, surpassing the Labour Party of Defence Minister Ehud Barak's 13.

In all, the right-wing, nationalist bloc has grown from a minority of 50 to a majority of 65 legislators, the final results confirmed. They included the votes of soldiers, sailors and diplomats abroad counted Thursday, two days after Tuesday's elections.

Although this did not translate in a change in the number of mandates for each, the gap between Kadima and the Likud became even smaller and stood at fewer than 30,000 votes, after counting of the nearly 180,000 "double envelopes," which included votes of soldiers who are usually slightly more right-wing then the general public.

Kadima received nearly 760,000 votes - 22.47 per cent - against nearly 730,000 for the Likud, or 21.61 per cent.

More than 3.4 million of some 5 million eligible Israelis - 64.5 per cent - voted

The results are to be published in the state's official chronicles on Wednesday, after which President Shimon Peres will start consultations with the heads of all 12 factions who made it into the Knesset. Under Israeli law, he then has seven days to appoint a candidate to form the next government.

Reacting to the CEC announcement of the final results, Kadima officials called on the Likud to join a unity government led by Livni, arguing it was now final and clear that Kadima was the largest party, but Likud officials rejected the call, arguing a decisive majority of voters preferred Netanyahu as prime minister.

"From a factual point of view, the situation is clear," Likud legislator Israel Katz told Israel Radio.

He pointed out that only Netanyahu did not need Livni and was able to form an automatic government with a majority of 65 lawmakers, based on the Likud, Lieberman and the other smaller parties in the right-wing camp, including two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism with 11 and five mandates, and the nationalist- religious Jewish Home with four mandates.

Livni, on the other hand, has no majority without the Likud.

"I would say Livni scored a nice personal achievement. She won the battle ... but she lost the campaign over who will lead the country," said Katz.

He argued that Netanyahu's hardline positions on Jerusalem, the occupied Golan Heights, from which he refuses to withdraw, and other key issues had won the support of a "clear majority" among the Israeli public. The positions of Livni - who wants to continue intense peace negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and has refused to rule out talks on Jerusalem - were "rejected" by a majority, Katz said.

The Likud legislator said Netanyahu would strive to form a broad government that would first of all include the parties of the right- wing camp, but also Kadima and others, whose guidelines would be based on the Likud platform.

"Kadima must make a decision in the coming days. If it wants, it is in," he said.

But Kadima lawmaker Otniel Schneller said his party "is the only one which should form the government."

"The largest party which won the most votes is Kadima," he argued.

He added Netanyahu had no automatic right-wing majority, because of strong differences on the issue of "civil partnership," promoted by the secular Lieberman, who represents many immigrants from the former Soviet Union, some of whom are not Jewish under Jewish religious law and are therefore unable to marry in Israel, where no civil marriage exists. The ultra-Orthodox Shas and UTJ strongly oppose his proposal.

Schneller said Kadima wants a broad government with the Likud, as well as Labour, and even Lieberman. The stalemate has sparked rising calls in Israel for a change in the election system that would allow more political stability.

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