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Leadership in Israel New government coalition will impact any peace talks

Voters in Israel once again have ordered up a serious dose of gridlock for their own government. Elections showed strong support for the Gaza incursion and hard-line nationalism, but the narrow split between the two major parties that backed that theme could mean that negotiations with minor parties will have to take place to form a government. In its history, Israelis never have provided enough votes to a single party to avoid the need for coalitions.

With President Obama starting his administration's planned immersion in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, he still has no idea which leader Israel will send to the table. And that will be a key factor, if peace is to stand any chance.

Israelis last week closely divided their ballots between the center-left Kadima Party, led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and the right-wing Likud, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. With both leaders arguing over who should have the first chance to try to form a coalition government, Israelis assured themselves a period of at least several weeks before anyone can claim to be in charge of that nation.

Peace stands little or no chance with Netanyahu, who viewed the Gaza combat as too little, too late. Livni would be better for the process -- but in order to gain enough parliamentary seats to govern, either leader likely would have to forge a political alliance with Avigdor Lieberman of the relatively new and "ultra-nationalist" Yisrael Beitenu Party. Lieberman is a hard-line politician who defies normal Israeli categorization, seeking to deny Israeli citizenship to any Arab who won't sign a loyalty oath even as he supports the idea of an independent Palestinian state and argues to reduce the power of Orthodox religious leaders over such government policies as marriage laws.

Meanwhile, another country that factors in this conflict -- Iran, which clearly rejects Israel's right to exist and has been seen as an arms source for the radical Palestinian group Hamas -- will hold its own elections in June, creating the possibility that a new president with less hostility to the United States might be elected.

In Israel, Livni has a chance because her Kadima Party claimed a bare plurality of seats in the Knesset, winning 28 of the body's 120 seats to Likud's 27. That gave Livni grounds to claim that Israeli President Shimon Peres should give her the first crack at forming a government, one that would have to be formed in coalition with some assortment of smaller parties. Netanyahu, on the other hand, points to the fact that the various parties that are more on his side of the political spectrum, taken together, add up to a larger share of parliament. And that, he says, makes him the logical candidate to form, and hold together, a coalition government that can really govern.

Still, if there is any hope for peace, it could be that three new leaders might be in or near these negotiations, along with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who supports a two-state solution.

While Iran would not be directly involved in the talks, its shadow presence will be important. And that presence would be less likely to be disruptive if hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is defeated -- the more moderate Mohammad Khatami is a potential candidate.

For now, Israelis will have to work out their leadership question among themselves. How they do that is important to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, as well as for the entire region.

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