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Israel Exit Polls Show Centrist Livni In Surprise Lead

Exit polls following Israel's general elections Tuesday show a surprise lead for centrist Tzipi Livni. The polls show Livni's Kadima party holding a slight advantage over the right-wing Likud party's Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been the front-runner in the election.

With security cited by voters as their main concern in this election, polls had indicated a strong swing to the right.

Public opinion surveys going into the election favored former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who wants less negotiation with the Palestinians and called for the toppling of the Hamas Islamic militant group in Gaza.

But the exit polls Tuesday night showed a different picture.

Projections by major Israeli television networks showed Tzipi Livni's ruling centrist Kadima party winning more seats than Mr. Netanyahu's Likud party. Still, Mr. Netanyahu went before his supporters early Wednesday (local time), and did not concede.

Mr. Netanyahu said that with God's help, he will lead the next government.

The ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party led by Avigdor Lieberman, a former disco bouncer who wants to require Arab Israelis to swear loyalty to the Jewish state, made a strong showing according to the exit polls.

With the race appearing so close, final results are not expected until Wednesday or Thursday.

Analysts say the early poll results indicate Israeli voters may still be interested in pursuing peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Gideon Levy is a political columnist with the Ha'aretz newspaper in Tel Aviv.

"If they are true, Israel at least partially says 'no' to extremism and says 'no' to nationalism," said Gideon Levy. "It is not only about the small victory of Tzipi Livni, it is also about relatively smaller results that Lieberman got. So, by and large, according to the expectations, people who look forward [to] any kind of progress in the peace process should be happy tonight."

Tzipi Livni presented herself as the best hope for peace - one who can negotiate with the Palestinians yet is willing to use force when necessary, as demonstrated in her role in the recent war on militants in the Gaza Strip. She says she is committed to a two-state solution.

Speaking to supporters on Wednesday, Livni called on Mr. Netanyahu to join a unity government.

She recalled that Mr. Netanyahu had refused her earlier invitation for him to join a coalition, saying the people should decide. She said that on this day, the people have decided on Kadima.

Palestinian officials welcomed the early results with cautious optimism. Nabil Abu Rudineh, the official spokesman and advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told VOA the Palestinians would be ready to continue dealing with Tzipi Livni, who served as outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's chief negotiator in talks. However, Abu Rudineh says no negotiations can go on with any Prime Minister as long as Israel maintains Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

"We have to wait and see," said Abu Rudineh. "She was negotiating with us. There were some obstacles with Olmert and Livni concerning many issues. We didn't close any files. On the contrary, the settlements continue and we hope that with the change which has taken place in America, there should be change in Israel."

Tzipi Livni failed to cobble together a coalition when she replaced Ehud Olmert as head of Kadima last year. Her failure to form a government then forced Tuesday's elections.