Kadima party leader Ehud Olmert claiming victory on March 29 (epa)
Almost all votes have been counted from Israel's March 28 parliamentary elections. The provisional vote count, which has not yet been officially confirmed, shows the centrist party Kadima taking the largest number of seats in the Knesset. The party, founded by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- who remains in a coma -- won on promises to take unilateral steps to separate Israel from the Palestinians. The win comes as the Palestinian parliament has confirmed a new government headed by the Islamic militant group Hamas. These new developments in the Middle East leave the internationally brokered peace process in deep freeze, despite international calls to revive it.
PRAGUE, March 29, 2006 (RFE/RL) - The leader of Kadima, interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, went into the parliamentary elections on March 28 calling them a referendum on separating from the Palestinians.
Now, with 99 percent of the votes counted, Olmert appears solidly in position to carry out his program. The provisional tally shows Kadima taking 28 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. That is enough to make the party the clearly dominant partner in the next ruling coalition.
With Or Without Palestinians
Olmert has followed up his party's win by calling on the Palestinians to work with him to create separate states. But he also made it clear that he intends to achieve this separation even without the Palestinians if no negotiating partner comes forth.
"In recognizing reality and understanding the circumstances, we are ready to compromise, to give up parts of the beloved land of Israel -- in which the best of our sons and soldiers are buried -- to evacuate from there with much pain the Jews who lived there, in order to create the conditions that will allow you to realize your dream, as well, of living alongside us in a state of your own, in peace and calm," he said.
Olmert has promised Israeli voters to carry out withdrawals on the West Bank along the line of Sharon's withdrawals from the Gaza Strip that were completed in September. At the same time, he plans to annex major Jewish settlements blocks and, likely, parts of east Jerusalem.
The results is to be a permanent border between Israel and the West Bank by 2010, and a physical security barrier separating the two sides.
Seeking Coalition Partners
Kadima needs 61 seats for a working majority in the Knesset. It is expected to court the second-biggest winner in the vote, the left-leaning Labor Party, to form its ruling coalition. The provisional vote count shows Labor -- which supports a West Bank withdrawal -- taking 20 seats.
Other potential partners could include the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu (Israeli Is Our Home) party, which draws heavily on immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The party, led by Avigdor Lieberman, emerged among the bigger vote winners with a platform that includes moving Arabs out of Israel proper as part of the separation process.
Lieberman has previously called his own separation proposals an alternative to Kadima's plans but has ruled out cooperation with Olmert. He said he was very satisfied with his party's gains. "I think it's a really important achievement," he said. "Today we are the biggest part of the national camp of the right wing, and I hope in the next elections, we will be the biggest partner."
A surprise loser in the vote was the right-wing Likud party, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu. The party, which Sharon and several other leaders left to form Kadima, has called any new unilateral Israeli withdrawals a victory for the Palestinians.
Hamas Moderating In Government?
The Israeli election results come just hours after the Palestinian parliament confirmed a cabinet headed by Hamas. The Islamic militant group does not recognize Israel as a state and claims credit for carrying out nearly 60 suicide bombings since 2000.
But Hamas, which also rejects the peace process, has said it might agree to a long-term truce with Israel as an alternative. Gershon Baskin, director of the Israeli-Palestinian Research and Information Center in Jerusalem, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that Hamas is becoming more pragmatic about Israel as it takes power.
"It seems that Hamas is moving in a much more practical direction," he said. "Speeches made by Ismail Haniyah, the Palestinian prime minister, over the last three days have been quite moderate and it seems like Hamas is looking for some way to open up the door to some kind of relationship with Israel even if it is not pursuing negotiations or an agreement. But there is a tendency it seems on the Hamas side to look toward establishing de facto recognition, relations between the two sides and pushing toward a cease-fire."
International Calls For Dialogue
The question now becomes how much the international community can move the new Israeli and Palestinian governments back to a negotiated peace process. The peace process has been frozen amid the second Palestinian intifadah, or uprising, that stems from frustration with continued Israeli military occupation.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair called today for a return to the peace process even while waiting for official confirmation of the Israeli vote results.
"We don't yet know the full result, but obviously what we hope very much is that there emerges a government in Israel that is prepared to, and able to, take forward a process of peace and reconciliation because I do believe, still, that a resolution of the Israel-Palestine issue is as important as anything else to bringing peace to the world," he said.
Violence continued between the two sides today. In the latest incident, the militant Palestinian group Islamic Jihad said it fired a Russian-made rocket at Israel from the Gaza Strip. There were no casualties.
(RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Irina Lagunina contributed to this report.)