Today is election day in Israel. The process that was set in motion last summer, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced his intention to resign (although he is still a caretaker prime minister), has now reached the point where that country's voters are ready to cast ballots in a general election for the parliament (Knesset).
The Likud Party, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is favored to finish first in the balloting, although far short of an absolute majority of the 120 Knesset seats. However, Likud's lead over the Kadima Party, whose leader is Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, has narrowed significantly, and Livni has a chance to be in the leading position, when negotiations begin over the formation of a coalition government.
Readers who are unfamiliar with the Israeli electoral system can read my descriptions of their pure form of proportional representation, and the further scattering of votes among multiple parties in recent elections.
At the beginning of the campaign, it looked like a three-way race. In addition to the two parties mentioned above, there is the Labor Party, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a former prime minister. He has been praised for his leadership of the recent military action against the Hamas faction of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. However, his party continues a long-term decline, and the country seems to prefer Barak in his current job, rather than as prime minister.
But now, a fourth party has emerged from the pack to become a major player: Yisrael Beiteinu. That party's leader, Avigdor Lieberman, is among the country's large population of emigrants from the Soviet Union. He takes a hard line on security issues related to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. His party might overtake Labor, and become the third-largest group in the Knesset.
Once today's voting is over, American observers can expect something more akin to our 2000 presidential election, than the 2008 American election. Unlike Barack Obama's election, which was assured as that Tuesday was ending, the true outcome of today's Israeli election is not likely to be known for a matter of weeks. It won't be a matter of recounting the people's votes, as happened in Florida in 2000, but rather counting Knesset seats in putting together a coalition of at least 61 votes in that legislative body.
Negotiating the formation of an Israeli coalition government usually entails long and complicated discussions.