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Centrist Kadima Party comes out ahead in Israeli elections

JERUSALEM—Israel moved tentatively toward a new era of pragmatic politics in Tuesday's parliamentary elections by tepidly endorsing a strategic policy shift aimed at defining the Jewish nation's nebulous borders without talking peace with the Palestinians.

Voters gave Israel's newest political party, Kadima, a smaller-than-expected plurality, but they nevertheless positioned it to build a coalition government that would formally absorb some contested Palestinian territory while giving up large swaths of the West Bank—and the dream of controlling currently occupied biblical land.

"This is a tectonic shift in the Israeli political system," said Gidi Grinstein, a onetime aide to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak who now runs the Re'ut Institute think tank in Tel Aviv.

While the election was billed as a referendum on Israel's national security options, voters appeared to be swayed more by bread-and-butter social issues closer to home: crime, retirement security, the minimum wage and government corruption.

Exit polls showed Kadima, the breakaway party founded by ailing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, winning only 30 of the Israeli parliament's 120 seats, compared with projections of up to 40 seats at the start of the election campaign.

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who took over as Kadima's leader in January after Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke, said during the campaign that winning fewer than 36 seats would be a disappointment.

In the waning days of the race, voters slipped away from Kadima and threw more support behind a spectrum of parties that focused largely on social issues. Labor, which focused on economic issues, won the second-largest number of seats, with 20 to 22. And in one of the biggest surprises of the race, a one-issue party committed to pension reform won as many as eight seats, according to exit polls.

Voters also soundly rejected the long-dominant Likud Party, which Sharon fled last year to form Kadima.

Likud, headed by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, barely broke double digits with an estimated 11 seats and fell behind the surging right-of-center Yisrael Beitenu party, which made crime and corruption main planks of its platform.

In the coming weeks, Kadima will try to build a governing coalition around the central tenet of its platform: shuttering smaller Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank in exchange for international blessings to annex major Jewish communities closer to Jerusalem.

In his victory speech, Olmert said Israel was prepared to make painful concessions to reach peace with the Palestinians, and he called on their leaders to do the same. But Olmert signaled that he would move quickly to enact his unilateral plan. "We will not wait forever," he said. "The time has come to act."

While voters made it more challenging for Olmert to lead the effort, Grinstein said the results showed that Israel was ready to change direction.

"Across the spectrum the debate is no longer whether to do territorial compromise. It is no longer a debate on if, it's a debate on how," he said.

The Israeli daily newspaper Ma'ariv made the same point Tuesday by framing the election as the historic demise of "two shattered dreams":

"On the one hand, the shattered dream of the greater Land of Israel and of retaining the settlements for all of eternity and, on the other hand, the shattered dream of a final peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, an End-of-Time peace."

During the sleepy campaign, which left many Israelis uninspired, Olmert outlined plans to absorb the biggest Jewish settlements, which house about two-thirds of the Israelis living in the West Bank. The remaining 60,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank would be removed and most of the land would be turned over to the Palestinians. Olmert still wants to keep the Israeli military in the West Bank valley between Israel and Jordan as a buffer against any potential threats from the east.

Hopes dimmed for resurrecting peace talks in January when the Islamist militant group Hamas—which refuses to accept Israel's right to exist—won control of the Palestinian government.

Kadima has said that it would give Hamas six months to a year to meet international demands that could pave the way for talks to resume.

If there's no movement, Kadima plans to move ahead with the West Bank pullout plan.

While the strategy mirrors last summer's successful shutdown of all 21 Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip, this proposal likely will be more challenging.

While few Israelis felt an historic tie to the narrow Gaza Strip on the Mediterranean coast, many Jews feel emotionally bound to the West Bank, which is home to the tomb of the Jewish patriarch Abraham and other biblical sites.

Many Jews who followed their nation's appeals to settle in the West Bank did so out of fiercely ideological and religious beliefs, and persuading them to leave could prove difficult.

The plan also faces long-term challenges. Even some of its supporters concede that a West Bank pullout won't lead to lasting peace. At best, they say, it will buy Israel a few years of relative stability that could lead to new peace talks—if and when the Hamas-led Palestinian government either moderates or is replaced.

Voter apathy resulted in a record-low turnout in Tuesday's election. Many voters were undecided heading to the polls.

In the upscale Germany Colony section of Jerusalem, Kinneret Gruber, 29, a mental health worker who traditionally has voted for Israel's small niche parties, was undecided up to the very last minute. But once in the voting booth she chose a Kadima slip.

The factor that tipped the balance, she said, was her desire for another round of settlement withdrawals.

"I wanted Olmert to win because of his West Bank pullout program," she said, "but I didn't know if I would be able to vote for him. He's very intelligent, but his personality is a bit arrogant."

Husband and wife Rachel and Nir Topper, both in their early 30s, were traditional supporters of the secular-left Meretz party. But much to their own surprise they found themselves drawn to Kadima.

"At the moment what the country needs is a strong center. We have enough parties on the margins. Kadima has some seriously competent people, and if they do everything they say they'll do, I will be happy," Rachel said.

Rabbi Amy Klein, 43, said she voted for Labor, hoping to make it the biggest partner in a Kadima-Labor-Meretz coalition.

"People are tired. They want the conflict to end, whether through a negotiated settlement or a unilateral withdrawal," she said.

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(Michael Matza reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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