JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Tzipi Livni has seen a sharp turnaround in fortunes for Israel’s ruling Kadima party since she became leader last month and could beat the right-wing opposition in a coming election, polls on Monday indicated.
President Shimon Peres, formally setting into motion procedures for a national ballot, told the Knesset after consultations with political parties that there was no chance of reaching a deal now to form a new coalition government.
Following Peres’ announcement, parliament has up to three weeks to dissolve itself and set an election date, widely expected to be scheduled for January or February.
Two newspaper surveys, published after Livni abandoned on Sunday her efforts to forge a coalition government and recommended to Peres a parliamentary election be held, showed Kadima just beating Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud -- a reversal of the results forecast in previous polls, published in August.
Livni’s Kadima colleagues attributed the gains to her image as a new kind of corruption-free politician, though few appeared to relish going to polls with an untested leader so soon.
“I think that we didn’t want an election. We wanted to continue in the existing (coalition) configuration,” Environment Minister Gideon Ezra of Kadima told Israel’s Army Radio.
Briefing her faction, Livni, a 50-year-old former lawyer and one-time Mossad operative, made clear she was not complacent.
“We all awoke today to flattering polls, and while this is certainly important, we need a Kadima that is strong, a Kadima that is united, a Kadima that strides forward as one,” she said.
With Israel focused on choosing a new leadership, prospects for progress in slow-moving U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations with the Palestinians seem dim. Washington had hoped for at least a framework agreement by the end of the year.
Centrist Kadima was battered by the 2006 Lebanon war and a graft scandal that forced Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign last month, although he remains in office until a new government is formed. Livni replaced Olmert as Kadima leader on September 17.
Olmert said that while Israel’s political leaders would be busy with elections over the next few months, the Jewish state would be ready to fend off any attacks from its foes -- Iran, Syria, Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas.
“I advise all those not to stretch our patience and not to test our ability,” Olmert said in parliament.
The poll in Yedioth Ahronoth daily predicted that Kadima would take 29 of 120 seats in the Knesset, while Likud would take 26. A similar poll for the Maariv newspaper gave Kadima 31 seats and Likud 29.
In the current parliament, Kadima is the largest faction with 29 seats, but in the opinion polls it had been trailing Likud for months. Netanyahu, a former prime minister, had seen his popularity boosted by Israeli security jitters.
Two polls in August, before Livni replaced Olmert as Kadima leader on September 17, showed Likud winning between 31 and 33 seats against a Kadima led by Livni that would take only 20 to 23.
Yuval Steinitz, a senior Likud lawmaker and Netanyahu confidant, described the new surveys as selective and biased.
“The polls I’ve seen show Likud leading by six or seven seats, though that’s still not enough,” he told Reuters.
Livni said on Sunday her efforts to form a new coalition government had failed over the demands of a key religious Jewish faction for special welfare stipends, and that she would seek an early ballot.
The Yedioth survey had 500 respondents and a 4.5 percent margin of error. Maariv, which polled 900 people, gave no margin of error.
Editing by Caroline Drees