Lieberman talks to his supporters 248.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Tuesday's election may have turned the leader of the decade-old Israel Beiteinu Party into Israel's new kingmaker.
Though the party had apparently won just 15 seats, half that of the Likud's 28 and Kadima's 30, the distribution of results makes any stable government very difficult.
According to calculations by The Jerusalem Post, a right-wing coalition would reach 66 seats, but it would mean bringing the haredi parties together with Israel Beiteinu, whose domestic agenda is antithetical to them.
On the other side of the spectrum, a broad left-wing coalition would reach 57 seats without Israel Beiteinu, and 72 seats with it.
In principle, party chief Avigdor Lieberman can comfortably join a center-left coalition, since his party does not oppose a Palestinian state and his primary voting bloc demands a social agenda closer to that of the Left.
But such a coalition would place Lieberman together with the same Arab parties whose leadership bore the brunt of Israel Beiteinu's campaign attacks over "disloyalty" to the state.
Without the 10 seats won by the three Arab parties, the left-wing coalition would shrink to a narrow 62 and place Israel Beiteinu in an unlikely partnership with the social-democratic Meretz, a situation that party's leaders are unlikely to countenance.
The voters' refusal to give the helm of the country over to a single clear winner has demonstrated dramatically the need for a more decisive system of election and governance, according to many observers.
As the possibility for a strong ideologically consistent bloc wanes, Israel Beiteinu looks set to become the linchpin for a national unity government. A Likud-Kadima coalition would probably require an agreement of rotation in the premiership as one party - Kadima - has apparently emerged larger, but at the head of a smaller ideological bloc.
Even so, such a coalition would amount to just 58 seats, requiring a stable third partner.
Lieberman may be the most attractive partner in such a coalition, as his domestic demands, including civil unions in lieu of marriage and governmental reform, would be palatable to the larger parties.
At the same time, his ability to make extravagant demands, such as the Defense portfolio, would be limited by the ease with which the two larger parties could replace him with the haredim or even the four-to-five seat Meretz.
Perhaps that was the reason Ruhama Avraham, a minister in the outgoing Kadima-led government, announced Tuesday night that "we'll do everything so that Tzipi Livni can establish a national-unity government."
Lieberman himself would be harmed if his domestic agenda - the source of support from perhaps half his constituency - were to be compromised by a national unity-haredi coalition.
The new MKs-elect appeared to be considering this reality within minutes of the announcement of the exit poll results at 10 p.m. Tuesday.
"We want a national [unity] government, but we have our principles, such as civil unions," signaled MK Yitzhak Aharonovich, a former Israel Beiteinu minister and No. 4 on the new list, shortly after the polls' results were revealed.
Even so, he noted, "The game is open. Everything is still open."
While most new MKs-elect steered away from commenting on coalition discussions, indications pointed to a strong possibility for such a centrist rotation government, whose main purpose would be a dramatic reform of the electoral system that created this excruciating post-election political continuum.
"We're not ruling out sitting with anyone, even the Arabs if they accept the principles of a government to which we are members," said Danny Ayalon, newly elected at No. 7 on Israel Beiteinu's list.
"But the current system of governance is impossible," he said. "We were the first to recommend an American-type system where governance is better and the checks and balances are stronger."
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