Israelis choose path of Olmert

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- Ehud Olmert's centrist Kadima party won the largest number of seats yesterday in Israel's parliamentary elections, ensuring that Olmert will become prime minister and be able to pursue his plan to give up some Jewish settlements in the West Bank and establish the country's permanent borders.

Kadima's victory was muted by the party's winning fewer seats than polls had projected. But it broke the monopoly on leadership held since the country's founding by the center-left Labor Party and its predecessors, and by the right-wing Likud, the party Olmert left to join Kadima.


He will succeed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Kadima's founder, who has remained in a coma since suffering a severe stroke Jan. 4. Olmert will need to build a coalition with other parties, almost certainly including Labor, which finished second in yesterday's vote.

"We will strive to bring about the establishment of the final borders of Israel as a Jewish state with a permanent Jewish majority, and as a democratic country," Olmert said early today in a televised speech. "We will work to do this through negotiations, through an agreement with our Palestinian neighbors. That is our wish and our prayer. There is no good alternative to a peace agreement."


He expressed confidence that the nation supports his plan to surrender parts of the West Bank, even if the new Palestinian government, dominated by the militant Islamic group Hamas, refuses to recognize Israel or to renounce violence.

"We are prepared to compromise," he said, addressing the Palestinians, "to give up the parts of the beloved Land of Israel in which are buried our best sons and fighters, to remove from there, with great pain, Jews who are living there, in order to create the conditions that will enable you to achieve your own dream and to live side by side with us in your own state in peace and in contentment."

Yesterday's election was a significant defeat for the country's right-wing parties, which strongly opposed Olmert's plan to give up territory.

Likud, the long-dominant party on the right, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, finished a distant fourth. Netanyahu said last night that Sharon's departure for Kadima had left Likud "broken and shattered," but he promised to rebuild the party.

"We know that our path to achieving security and peace is the right one," Netanyahu said. "We don't bend to the winds of fashion. We know that our path is the only one that can stabilize security and ensure us all a safe future and in the end, the peace we all want."

With results in from 70 percent of the polling places, Kadima was winning 28 seats in the 120-member parliament, according to Israeli news media. Labor, led by Amir Peretz was projected to win 20 seats, a strong showing after a campaign that proposed pension reform and a higher minimum wage.

Likud was projected to win 11 or 12 seats, less than one-third of the number the party won in the preceding national elections.

The ultra-Orthodox party Shas was projected to capture 13 seats, raising the possibility that it would become the third-largest party in parliament. A party focused on immigrants from the former Soviet Union - Israel Beiteinu - was projected to win 11 seats. Its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, proposed redrawing Israel's borders so that thousands of Israeli Arabs would be in the West Bank rather than Israel.


The Pensioners Party, which campaigned to improve pension and housing rights for senior citizens, was projected to win six to eight seats, an unexpectedly strong performance.

The right-wing National Union-National Religious Party was winning eight seats, with United Torah Judaism projected to take six and the left-wing Meretz five. The Arab parties stood to win a total of nine seats.

After Sharon's stroke in January, some commentators had doubted Kadima's ability to survive. Olmert became acting prime minister and, with yesterday's elections, the leader of a new, "third way" in Israeli politics.

His success marked the collapse of the political debate between two factions: supporters of a Greater Israel that included the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and advocates of a permanent peace agreement, even at the cost of giving up territory.

Acknowledging that negotiations with the Palestinians might prove impossible, Olmert said that Israel could go it alone, withdrawing settlements from the West Bank and defining the country's borders, a process that Sharon began last summer by ordering the withdrawal of Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers from Gaza.

Israelis voted the same day that the Palestinian parliament approved a new, Hamas-led Cabinet, which will take office this week.


Ismail Haniyeh, the new Palestinian prime minister, immediately rejected Olmert's withdrawal plan.

"Let's see how things will develop in the future. At the moment, what we see and what is declared is a unilateral separation plan from Olmert," Haniyeh said. "This plan is rejected by the Palestinian people."

Voter turnout in Israel was the lowest in the country's history, with about 63.2 percent of those eligible casting ballots, a figure that reflected the lack of excitement during the campaign.

"I would say it's more of a kind of defeat to the whole political system," said Abraham Diskin, a political science professor at Hebrew University. "I think Israelis expressed [that] they're disappointed with political parties in Israel and politicians in almost every possible way."

Speaking on Israeli radio last night, Uzi Landau, a Likud leader, said: "Two things have happened here. One is that the rightist bloc - and the Likud for certain - has received a severe blow. The other thing we should notice is that some of the vote was a form of complex protest.

"How can you explain the fact that a not-inconsiderable portion of the public simply stayed at home?" he said.


According to some analysts, the large lead enjoyed by Kadima in pre-election polls left some voters wary of it winning by too large a margin.

"The public rebelled against the pressure it felt to vote for a large Kadima," Ari Shavit, a political writer for the newspaper Haaretz said last night on Israel Channel 1. "The result is instability and a big gap between the task placed on Ehud Olmert and the great limitations placed on him."

Eli Verdi, 41, owner of a cigar shop in the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, closed his shop last night before going to cast his vote for Likud. All the parties, no matter what their campaign promises, would pull out some settlements from the West Bank and tighten the country's borders, he said. It was a compromise he was willing to accept.

"Ten years ago, I would have said not to give an inch. Now I say, 'Take it, but leave us alone,'" he said.

Across the street, Moshe Cohen, 40, owner of an ice cream shop, was switching his support from Likud to Kadima and its plan to withdraw from the West Bank.

"We are tired," he said. "We don't want any more violence."