Leaders of Israel's two largest parties Wednesday began courting four ultra-Orthodox religious parties that made a surprise showing in critical parliamentary elections and could be the key to forming the next government.
"We will not reject the idea of sitting with any Jew in government," said Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, leader of the religious Shas Party, which increased its power in Israel's parliament from four to six seats, according to the latest unofficial results.The right-wing Likud and the center-left Labor Party, which now rule Israel in an uneasy alliance, won nearly the same number of parliamentary seats in Tuesday's election.
Likud appeared in a stronger position to form the next government because religious parties in the past 10 years have allied themselves with the political right. But the religious groups, which are mainly concerned with religious and social issues rather than political ones, could decide to join whichever party offers them the most.
With nearly 100 percent of the vote counted, Likud appeared to have won 39 seats in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament, and Labor 38, state-run Israel Radio reported.
The four religious parties captured 17 seats, small left-wing parties captured 10, small right-wing parties won seven and the Arab parties received eight. The fate of the remaining seat was undecided pending tallying of the vote of soldiers, whose ballots take longer to count, Israel Radio reported.
Likud's Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Labor's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres planned meetings throughout the day with religious party leaders.
"We feel we have reached independence," said Avner Shaki, head of the National Religious Party and a parliamentary candidate. "We have certain basic conditions on the land of Israel, Jewish education and Jewish identity. If we hear some change from Labor on these issues, we can negotiate."
Likud faced the difficult task of forming a coalition of the extremely ideological religious and right-wing parties. Many analysts said another "national unity" government of Likud and Labor was possible.
In a rare interview, former Likud bloc Prime Minister Menachem Begin told Israel Radio the election results showed Labor failed in "all of its programs."
"The Likud is in the top place, the strongest faction," said Begin, who resigned in 1983 and has remained virtually in seclusion since. "Negotiations with different parties to establish a coalition government with Prime Minister Shamir will be prolonged and difficult."
Peres told Israel Radio he took responsibility for the election results and did not plan to meet with Shamir because he believed the two parties could not again form a "national unity" government. For his part, Shamir did not make any overtures to Peres.
When asked if he would participate in another government with Shamir, Peres said, "For what? To establish more settlements?"
Peres has rejected opening new Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, instead advocating territorial compromise in exchange for peace. Shamir favors an increase in Israeli settlements of the area to bolster security.
The main issues of the campaign have been peace and security, especially Israeli policy toward the Israeli-occupied territories where a bloody Palestinian uprising has raged for nearly 11 months. On election day, soldiers shot and wounded 11 Palestinians during confrontations, the military said.
If the four religious parties throw their 17 seats into a coalition with Likud, Shamir and the other right-wing parties would have a majority of 63 seats, according to the results announced on state-run Israel Radio.
Labor and its left wing allies appear to have a total of 48 seats and at most 56 seats if the Arab parties joined their coalition.
Aside from scattered fist fights and isolated reports of vote fraud, the balloting went smoothly at the 4,820 polling stations. Election officials said 79 percent of 2.9 million eligible voters went to the polls.