An inconclusive election sent Israel into political limbo today with both pragmatic Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and hard-line leader Benjamin Netanyahu claiming victory and awarding a kingmaker role to a rapidly rising rightist with an anti-Arab platform.
Ms Livni’s Kadima Party won 28 seats, just one more than Mr Netanyahu’s Likud in the 120-member parliament, according to nearly complete results, and neither can govern alone.
Mr Netanyahu has a better chance of forging a coalition because of gains by right-wing parties, his natural allies.
The tie set the stage for weeks of agonising coalition negotiations.
Such paralysis could dampen prospects for Egyptian-led attempts to broker a truce between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers after Israel’s devastating offensive in Gaza last month.
Hamas might be reluctant to sign a deal with Israel’s transition government, at the risk of having it overturned by the incoming coalition.
And regardless of the final composition of the government, it is unlikely to move quickly toward peace talks with the Palestinians, and instead could find itself on a collision course with President Barack Obama, who has said he’s making a Mideast peace deal a priority.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will restart talks only if Israel’s government commits to a settlement freeze, his aides said, posing such a condition for the first time.
Several hours after polls closed, Ms Livni and Mr Netanyahu staged rival victory rallies to lay their claim to the premiership.
“With God’s help, I will lead the next government,” Mr Netanyahu told cheering Likud activists early today.
An hour later, Ms Livni told supporters that “the people have spoken, and they have chosen Kadima”.
With all civilian votes counted, Kadima won 28 seats, compared to 27 for Likud, 15 for ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and just 13 for the centre-left Labour, for decades Israel’s ruling party.
Overall, right-wing and religious parties won a total of 64 seats, compared to 56 for centre-left and Arab parties.
The tally did not include thousands of votes by soldiers, to be counted by tomorrow evening. They could shift the final results by a seat or two.
It’s now up to Israeli President Shimon Peres to decide whether Ms Livni or Mr Netanyahu should have the first shot at forming a government.
Mr Peres will meet with party leaders to hear their recommendations, and then he has a week to make up his mind.
However, the final word may be up to Mr Lieberman, a former protege of Mr Netanyahu. His rightist Yisrael Beiteinu scored a large gain in the election, rising from 11 in 2006 to 15 seats now.
Mr Lieberman kept his options open, saying he spoke both to Ms Livni and Mr Netanyahu after the polls closed. “We want a right-wing government,” Mr Lieberman said, but added that “we do not rule out anyone”.
His party draws strong support from immigrants from the former Soviet Union, many of whom are secular and feel stifled by Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious establishment, which has a monopoly on marriage, divorce and determining who is a Jew.
Mr Netanyahu, on the other hand, has strong ties to Jewish religious parties, particularly the ultra-Orthodox Shas, which has traded verbal attacks with Mr Lieberman in recent days.