Israel moves closer to bruising election race

ISRAEL MOVED closer to a bruising election campaign that will decide the future of peace talks yesterday, as polls showed moderate foreign minister Tzipi Livni in a surprisingly close race with hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu.

Neither of Israel’s two leading political parties would have enough seats to form a government on its own, according to the surveys, which also showed an even split between the country’s hawkish and center-left blocs. That signals more deadlock in peacemaking with Syria and the Palestinians.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad expressed concern that precious time was running out.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were relaunched nearly a year ago at a US-hosted summit, where Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas set a December 2008 target for clinching a final accord.

But both leaders have since acknowledged there will be no deal by year’s end.

President Shimon Peres began the countdown to new elections at the opening of the winter session of parliament, a day after Livni gave up on her attempts to form a new governing coalition.

“In the coming days, Israel will enter a decisive political campaign,” Peres told lawmakers.

Olmert, who is being forced from office by a series of corruption investigations, said he would remain in office as a caretaker in the meantime.

Israel’s ceremonial president is meant to be a unifying figure in this divided country, and Peres used the occasion to appeal to the parties to work together.

But almost immediately, the signs of division were evident.

Speaking to the same session, Netanyahu unofficially launched his campaign by staking out hardline positions on peace talks with Syria and the Palestinians.

The speech prompted repeated heckling by dovish and Arab lawmakers.

Speaking to retired Israeli security officials in Tel Aviv, Ahmed Qureia, the Palestinians’ chief peace negotiator, said opposition leaders adopt a different tone than politicians in power.

“But I want to say one thing: There will be no peace without Jerusalem,” he said.


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