New polls on Monday showed Tzipi Livni, the moderate leader of Israel's ruling party, holding her ground against hawkish rival Benjamin Netanyahu, a day after she steered the country toward unscheduled elections early next year.
The surveys hinted at what is expected to be a tough and possibly dramatic race between political leaders with sharply different world views. As foreign minister, Livni has been Israel's chief peace negotiator with the Palestinians for the past year, and repeatedly has spoken of the need to make territorial concessions. Netanyahu takes a hard line against ceding war-won land, and has ruled out partitioning Jerusalem, a key Palestinian demand.
A poll by the Dahaf Research Institute showed Livni's Kadima Party winning 29 of parliament's 120 seats, the same number it has now, and Netanyahu's Likud taking 26 if elections were held today. A TNS Teleseker survey gave Kadima 31 seats to Likud's 29.
The surveys also showed the country's hawkish and center-left blocs fairly evenly split, a deadlock that has paralyzed peacemaking in the past.
The Dahaf poll of 500 people had a margin of error of 4.5 percent. The TNS survey of more than 900 people put the maximum margin of error at two parliamentary seats.
Livni took the helm at Kadima last month in a primary election forced by multiple corruption allegations against the incumbent prime minister, Ehud Olmert. She tried to avoid propelling Israel toward its third national election in six years by keeping the current government intact. But coalition partners, most prominently the 12-seat ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, used the situation to press new demands she would not accept.
In a meeting with President Shimon Peres broadcast live on national TV, Livni said she would not give in to what she called political blackmail.
"I was not prepared to mortgage Israel's economic and political future or the hope for a better future and a different kind of politics," she said after the meeting.
"We'll go to elections ... and I intend to win them," she told Peres, whose ceremonial duties include presiding over the election and coalition-building process.
Elections are expected to take place in February or March, a year and a half ahead of schedule.
The surveys published Monday suggested the public approved her tough stand against the political horsetrading and did not reproach her for failing to marshal a coalition. But the advantage was narrow and could easily evaporate _ especially if new Israeli-Palestinian violence erupts.
Netanyahu, who has been pressing for new elections for months, has not commented publicly since Livni officially abandoned her coalition-building efforts, though he will have a wide forum when, as opposition leader, he addresses the nationally televised opening of parliament's winter session later Monday. Commenting on the polls, Likud faction head Gideon Saar said the contest between the two leaders would be "tough."
"But I believe the majority of the public wants a new course ... that will improve the country's economy and security," he told Israel Radio.
Netanyahu accepts the idea of a weak Palestinian state on limited amounts of territory. During his three-year tenure as prime minister in the 1990s, relations with the Arab world soured. But he did yield to international pressure, giving up control of some West Bank territory he had once insisted on retaining.
Early elections appeared inevitable after the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, which commands 12 parliamentary seats, announced Friday it would not join a Livni-led government. Without Shas' support, Livni would have headed a government with a razor-thin majority, and would have found it difficult to take the bold steps peacemaking requires.
Livni resisted Shas' demands for hundreds of millions of dollars for social welfare programs and a commitment that Israel would not negotiate Jerusalem's future.
The Palestinians want east Jerusalem, which Israel captured and annexed in 1967, as the capital of their hoped-for state. Livni says Israel must find a settlement for the conflicting claims to the holy city and cannot refuse to address outstanding issues between the two peoples.
Peace talks were relaunched nearly a year ago at a U.S.-hosted summit, where Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas set a December 2008 target for clinching a final accord. But no breakthroughs have been announced and both leaders have acknowledged publicly that there will be no deal by year's end.
The internal political turmoil has cast a cloud of uncertainty over the talks, and Palestinians worried that precious time was running out.
"There's nobody to take decisions. The peace process will be without momentum. ... The upcoming period will be a cloudy, dangerous period of wait-and-see," said Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh.