vote results 298.
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Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gained two crucial votes on the center-left for his convergence plan on Thursday, when the Central Elections Committee published the final results of Tuesday's election.
Following the counting of some 150,000 votes from soldiers, diplomats, prisoners and Gush Katif evacuees, Kadima, the Likud and Meretz each gained a seat in the Knesset at the expense of Shas, Israel Beiteinu and the United Arab List.
Kadima's rise to 29 seats and Meretz's to five, along with Labor's 20, and the Gil Pensioners' Party's seven, gave Olmert's plan to withdraw unilaterally from most of the West Bank a majority of 61, even without the nine votes of the Arab parties.
The Likud's rise to 12 seats at the expense of Israel Beiteinu, which fell to 11, ensured that party chairman Binyamin Netanyahu would become leader of the opposition to a prospective government that would include Kadima, Labor and Shas.
Olmert received the news from cabinet secretary Yisrael Maimon during a ceremony at Beit Hanassi. In a gesture of goodwill, he asked Maimon to relay the news to Netanyahu, who was attending the same event.
"This gives us more leverage for the coalition talks," an Olmert associate said. "The larger our margin of victory over Labor is, the easier it will be to form a coalition."
Labor chairman Amir Peretz reacted angrily on Thursday to statements by Olmert that there was no chance that Labor would be given the Finance Ministry. Peretz said he was not interested in the Foreign Affairs of Defense portfolios because they would not help him advance his socioeconomic platform.
Labor officials said Peretz was afraid of taking the Defense portfolio, because significant cuts in the defense budget would be needed to push the socioeconomic policies he promised. Defense Ministry officials are still reeling from last year's cuts, and they would fiercely resist Peretz taking the post.
"Kadima is trying to put a noose around my neck," Peretz told his associates.
Peretz met for more than a hour with Shas chairman Eli Yishai at Labor's Tel Aviv headquarters and discussed the possibility of forming a united front together with Gil to win concessions on socioeconomic issues in the coalition talks.
Yishai rejected the idea, saying that "Shas suffered in the opposition for three years, so we have to look out for ourselves."
Olmert will start meeting on Sunday with the heads of the parties that might join a Kadima-led coalition. Formal coalition talks will begin later next week after President Moshe Katsav formally asks Olmert to form the next government.
Katsav will hold consultations starting Sunday with representatives of the 12 parties that will be in the next Knesset and ask them who they recommend to form the government. In an effort to complete the consultations as quickly as possible, he scheduled meetings with five parties for Sunday,four Monday and three Tuesday.
First in line Sunday is Kadima, followed by Labor, Shas, Israel Beiteinu and the Likud. On Monday, Katsav will meet with the National Union-National Religious Party, the Gil Pensioners' Party, Meretz and the United Arab List. He will meet Tuesday with Hadash, Balad and United Torah Judaism.
Peretz together with Dalia Rabin and other Labor representatives paid tribute to former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at Kikar Rabin in Tel Aviv on Thursday to mark the end of the elections.
"As we stand here today, Rabin would have been proud of our success," Peretz said. "We are committed to continue Rabin's legacy toward peace and social justice. We are committed to close socioeconomic gaps through a revolution in the education system. Something has now changed in this country. We see happy people and the hope of people as the flags for peace and social justice are released."
Sharon Wrobel contributed to this report.