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New elections could turn Israel to the right

JERUSALEM — Israel appears headed toward new elections that could pull the Middle East nation to the right.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni Sunday abandoned her efforts to establish a new governing coalition after she refused to meet demands from ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders that she pledge not to discuss ceding parts of Jerusalem in any peace talks with the Palestinians.

Acceding to that demand most likely would have led to the complete collapse of fragile Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, but new elections could sidetrack the flimsy diplomatic process the Bush administration launched nearly a year ago.

Livni's decision means that Israel most likely will hold new elections in early 2009 that could propel former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu back into power. Current polls show Netanyahu and his more hawkish Likud Party poised to regain control.

Should Netanyahu triumph, he'd almost certainly take a harder line on peace talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and in cease-fire negotiations with the Islamic group Hamas, which wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Abbas's forces in 2007.

Livni, who assumed control of the centrist Kadima Party last month, was trying to become the second woman to ever lead Israel, but she came up short.

After informing Israeli President Shimon Peres of her call for new elections, Livni said she wasn't willing to put political expedience ahead of what she thought was best for Israel.

"There are prices that can be paid, there are prices that others are willing to pay, but I am not willing to pay them with the state and its citizens paying the price only to be prime minister of a crippled government," said Livni.

The move means that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who announced in July that he'd resign under a cloud of corruption allegations, is likely to remain in his post until after a new U.S. president is sworn in this January.

In a tight race last month, Kadima Party members chose Livni to succeed Olmert as the leader of the young political party, which was founded in 2005 by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Sharon, Olmert and Livni were all among the Likud Party leaders who bolted from the long-dominant political group and sought to create a more pragmatic, centrist party.

Kadima, however, got off to a rough start after Sharon suffered a career-ending stroke in 2006, and Olmert was elevated to lead the party into its first election.

Kadima won, but Olmert almost immediately faltered during the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon. He also was hobbled by investigations into whether he'd double-billed the Israeli government and his supporters for trips and if he'd received illegal cash donations from an American businessman.

McClatchy Special Correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.

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