Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima was the big winner in the 2006 election on Tuesday, taking 29-32 seats in the 17th Knesset and obtaining a majority for his West Bank withdrawal plan, according to exit polls on the three television channels.
The loser in the race was the Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu, who vowed to remain party chairman and rehabilitate the party which fell behind Labor and Israel Beiteinu to finish in fourth place. The surprise of the election was the Gil Pensioners' Party of former Mossad agent Rafael Eitan, which benefitted from a record low 63.2 percent voter turnout to win six to eight seats.
Olmert watched the election broadcasts in his Jerusalem home with his family and went to the Western Wall to pray before coming to Kadima's victory party in Neveh Ilan.
"Tonight a chapter in Israel's history has been closed," he told his supporters at the victory party. "My partners and I will represent a new chapter in Israel's history.
"Before we can make peace and live with our neighbors, it's time we made peace among ourselves, with patience and with love."
Olmert's associates expressed satisfaction that the party Prime Minister Ariel Sharon formed just four months ago had emerged as the largest, even though it won fewer seats than had been expected before Tuesday. Praising the downfall of the Right, Kadima officials said they would form a coalition with any party that would support Olmert's plan and that many options would be open when coalition talks begin on Sunday.
With Labor, Meretz, Shas, Israel Beiteinu, Meretz, United Torah Judaism and the Pensioners, Olmert could form a coalition of as many as 95 MKs. In an effort to lower Labor chairman Amir Peretz's asking price, Olmert's associates sent feelers to Peretz claiming that Labor was unneeded in the coalition.
Olmert had already formed a coalition negotiating team that included his incoming chief of staff Yoram Turbowitz, aide Ovad Yehezkel, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Tourism Minister Avraham Hirchson, Haim Ramon and Kadima legal adviser Eitan Haberman.
In his victory speech, Olmert added: "We must put aside fights about dividing Israel, minorities vs. Jews, religious vs. secular, Ashkenazim against Mizrahim, and immigrants vs. veteran Israelis.
He reached out to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, saying that Israel is willing to make compromises if the Palestinians are willing to lay down their arms and be realistic about the future borders of a potential Palestinian state.
"This is a big victory for the convergence plan in a referendum over those who wanted it defeated," Olmert told his associates earlier in the evening. "I am satisfied with the results even though we could have received more support. It is too soon to talk about coalitions and possible government because we should wait for final results."
Netanyahu's opponents in the Likud, including MK Limor Livnat, called his performance in the election a failure and said the party's institutions should be convened to oust him. MK Silvan Shalom, who is expected to challenge Netanyahu's leadership, boycotted a Likud faction meeting at the party's Tel Aviv headquarters late Tuesday night.
"There is no doubt the Likud suffered a tough blow," Netanyahu told Likud activists in his concession speech at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds. "We started the party's rehabilitation process during a cruel election process while we were undergoing a trial by fire. We have had our ups and downs, but the party will keep going. I intend to continue the path we started to guarantee its rehabilitation. If we succeed in uniting, we can lead the party back to power."
Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu won 12-14 seats, making it the third largest in the next Knesset. Lieberman has expressed an interest in joining any coalition formed despite his opposition to Olmert's convergence plan.
Kadima officials said they expected the Gil Pensioners' Party to be a part of any coalition, and they even suggested that the party could be swallowed into Kadima, but Gil's leaders denied any contacts with Kadima and said they were in no other party's pocket.
"We will decide whether to be in the coalition or opposition based on how best to advance the path of the pensioners, but it is too soon to say," said the 79-year-old Eitan. "We will consider all the possibilities."
Party officials said that Eitan's ideology was similar to the Likud's and that he had tried to set up a meeting with Sharon to join Kadima before the prime minister's stroke. Most of the rest of the anonymous people on the Gil list were previously affiliated with Labor.
None of the other small parties running, including Green Leaf, Uzi Dayan's Tafnit, the far-right Herut and Baruch Marzel's Jewish National Front apparently passed the voter threshold.
The bloc of parties on the Right and religious parties won some 50 seats, including Likud's 11-12, Israel Beiteinu's 12-14, Shas's 10-11, the National Union-National Religious Party's eight or nine and United Torah Judaism's five or six. The Left-Center bloc won more than 60 seats: Kadima's 29-32, Labor's 20-22, Meretz's five and six to eight from Arab parties.
Olmert did not wait for Peretz to finish his concession speech before starting his own address. In his remarks, Peretz told supporters at Labor Party headquarters in Tel Aviv: "Not a single person here hesitated despite attempts to take the wind out of the sails of the social revolution."
The accuracy of TV exit polls were less than perfect in the past, most memorably in 1996 when it incorrectly showed Shimon Peres to have narrowly defeated Binyamin Netanyahu for the premiership. Final results were expected by morning, and official results will be published on April 5.
President Moshe Katsav said he would invite the parties to begin consultations on forming a new government on Sunday. Whoever Katsav asks to form a coalition will have 28 days to present a coalition of at least 61 MKs, with another 14 days' extension possible at the president's discretion.
Brianna Ames and Sheera Claire Frenkel contributed to this report.