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Israeli media: Kadima wins at polls

Olmert's party will need coalition help; Likud suffers 'body blow'

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Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert waves to supporters at a rally early Wednesday.

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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's 4-month-old centrist Kadima party took the largest share of parliamentary seats in elections Tuesday, according to Israeli media.

The party, formed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon late last year when he broke from the Likud bloc he helped form in the 1970s, earned 28 seats, giving Kadima the most seats in the 120-member Knesset.

The Israeli media were reporting early Wednesday that with 99.5 percent of the vote counted, Tuesday's other big winners were the Labor party with 20 seats; Shas, a party comprising ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Jews, with 13 seats; Yisrael Beitenu with 12 seats; and Likud with 11.

At a victory rally Wednesday after the exit poll declared Kadima the winner, Olmert reiterated his promise to define Israel's borders in the next four years -- with or without Palestinian input -- by evacuating small Jewish settlements in the West Bank and annexing larger ones.

"For thousands of years we have dreamed in our hearts of a greater Israel, an entire land of Israel, and such a country will always remain a dream in our hearts," Olmert said, explaining that the move will allow Jewish settlers in the West Bank to "live side by side with us in your own country, in peace and in tranquility."

However, Kadima's showing was weaker than forecast -- with the party 12 seats shy of the 40 Olmert predicted -- meaning party leaders will have to look for coalition partners. The top prospect to join forces with Kadima is the Labor Party, which had a stronger-than-expected showing.

Likud falls

Likud's 11 seats are a stark change for the party that has dominated Israeli politics since the 1970s. If the early tally is correct, Likud will control only the fifth-largest number of seats in the Knesset behind Kadima, Labor, Shas and Yisrael Beitenu.

Party Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister, said after the exit polls were released that Likud "was dealt a body blow," but he voiced optimism that Likud would prevail in the long run.

Saying Sharon left Likud "absolutely fragmented and smashed to smithereens," Netanyahu said that Israelis ultimately will realize that "our path to achieve security and peace is the right path."

"We will come back to better days," he said. (Watch why the Likud party faces an uncertain future -- 2:28)

Though the election results likely will mean a new era in Israeli politics, some politicians expressed concern that the bevy of parties represented in the Knesset could mean instability in Israeli government.

Saying it was too early to be sure, Kadima candidate Yitzhak Ben-Israel speculated that "the government will be a little bit less stable because of too many parties."

A border referendum

The election was widely considered to be a referendum on the future of Israel's borders. Since the West Bank was conquered in 1967, Israelis have settled inside that territory.

Before the election Olmert promised to remove, by force if necessary, as many as 90,000 Israeli settlers from the interior of the West Bank and place them closer to the 1949 armistice line that separates Israel from the West Bank.

Israelis trickled to the polls Tuesday to elect Knesset members, facing a future without the popular Sharon -- and with a Hamas-led Palestinian government on its borders.

After the exit polls were announced, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said he was surprised Israelis checked more doves than hawks on the ballot, and he likened his surprise to the confusion Israelis felt when Palestinians elected Hamas to lead them in January.

"Two months ago Palestinian voters managed to confuse and surprise Israelis," Erakat said. "Tonight, Israeli voters managed to confuse and surprise us."

He further expressed hope that Israel would abandon unilateralism and embrace peace negotiations with Palestinians.

Turnout low

Polling stations on Election Day, a national public holiday, were open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Voter turnout was 63.2 percent, election officials reported, a decrease from the country's last elections, which saw nearly 68 percent turnout. Tuesday's turnout also was a historic low in parliamentary balloting.

The election came on the same day that the Palestinian parliament approved a Hamas-led government by a 71-36 vote. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's government is scheduled to be sworn in Thursday.

Hamas, which operates a network of social and charitable organizations for Palestinians, does not recognize Israel's right to exist and is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and European Union.

Borders and peace

Under Sharon, a conservative former general who served during all of Israel's wars, Israel abandoned its settlements in Gaza and planned extensive withdrawals from the West Bank. That did not sit well with Likud.

Though Olmert is looking to continue that process, analysts said that Kadima's weaker-than-expected showing in Tuesday's election may hamstring the party and its leader.

Olmert was quick to point out during the Wednesday victory rally that the future of peace negotiations also depends on Hamas, which Olmert said must renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist.

"We will not wait forever," Olmert said. "The time for action has come." (Watch why Israelis consider Olmert an enigma -- 3:05)

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