With last votes counted in Israel, parties jockey for position

Israel finishes vote count as parties engage in minuet of preliminary coalition talks

The last votes were counted Thursday in Israel’s election as political parties sent out feelers over joining Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s next government.

Starting Sunday, President Reuven Rivlin will begin a round of consultations with the heads of the parties before officially tapping Netanyahu to form a ruling coalition.

After a landslide triumph at the ballot box Tuesday, it could take several weeks before Netanyahu finalizes a majority for his next government, his fourth since 1996. It is expected to be a conservative coalition of right-wing and religious parties.

The central election committee concluded the counting of the last remaining ballots, 200,000 votes cast by soldiers, hospital patients and diplomats.

The complex math of Israel's election system led to minor adjustments in the final tally, but left Netanyahu’s clearcut victory unchanged and his Likud party the largest in the Knesset, or parliament, controlling a quarter of the 120 seats.

After election committee chairman Judge Salim Joubran submits the election results to Rivlin in an official ceremony on Wednesday, Rivlin will give the green light to a lawmaker, presumably Netanyahu, to begin forming a new government.

Rivlin has conveyed support for a national unity government including both Likud and the opposition Labor Party, but the ultimate makeup of the coalition will be up to the prime minister, and Netanyahu is far more likely to look to like-minded, right-leaning parties.

Netanyahu will have 28 days to negotiate agreements with enough parties to give him a majority in the Knesset, with a possible two-week extension. Failure to form a coalition could default the mandate to a different candidate, although that appears unlikely.

The new Knesset with be sworn in on March 31. According to Israeli news reports, Netanyahu is looking at a date in late April to present his new government, shortly before Israeli Independence Day.

Even before the government is formed, it is clear that Netanyahu's priorities will have to include an urgent mending of relations with the United States.

Netanyahu has yet to decide who will serve as his next foreign minister, but contenders for the post were already weighing in on the work needed to repair U.S.-Israeli ties.

Former Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom, who now holds several domestic porfolios, said in an interview with Israel Radio that the two countries continued to have a foundation of deep friendship and bipartisan support. “Undoubtedly, relations with the U.S. should be improved but this should be achieved through quiet work,” he said.

Another contender, Interior Minister Gilad Erdan, said turning over a new leaf with the Obama administration is possible but expressed hope that Washington will take a “different direction of dialogue, not handing down instructions.”

Sobelman is a special correspondent

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