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Opinion

Israel Votes

By Joel MowbraySyndicated Columnist

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL -- Exit polls have just been announced here in Israel, with a very surprising result: a two-seat lead for left-of-center Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-of-center Likud had held a sizeable lead in almost every poll right up through the eve of today's election.

But as anyone who's followed the less-than-sterling track record of exit polls in the U.S. knows painfully well, the initial results are merely a mechanism for making guesses. And in Israel, the history has been similar.

In 1996, almost all Israeli and world media outlets declared Labor candidate Shimon Peres the winner over Netanyahu. It wasn't till the middle of the night that the Likud challenger pulled ahead in the vote tally.

Yet Israeli elections are hardly simple. Netanyahu still could become the next prime minister, despite Likud holding the second-highest number of seats.

Because Israel has a parliamentary system with over a dozen political parties, no one party gets a majority of the vote. This means a coalition is required to get at least 61 legislators from various parties to control a majority of the 120-seat Knesset.

What is clear at this point, however, is that the right-of-center parties are cruising to a solid majority of at least 65 seats, up from roughly 50 now. That's a seismic shift for this country.

Israeli law does not guarantee Livni first crack at forming the coalition simply because her party won the most seats. With the right-of-center parties enjoying such a solid showing, it would be very difficult for Livni to assemble a coalition of 61 members.

Livni might be given the first opportunity to form a coalition by virtue of Kadima taking the pole position, but she failed to build a governing majority when given the chance to do so last fall -- with a far more favorable Knesset make-up.

Even with exit polls showing his party taking second place, the odds still favor Netanyahu becoming Israel's next Prime Minister.