With just one seat separating the country's two largest parties, weeks of political wrangling appear likely in Israel. But the election's real winner could end up being an ultra-nationalist kingmaker.
Official results are expected within two days
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's Kadima party inched surprisingly ahead of Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, according to polling data released Wednesday, Feb. 11. Both parties have claimed to have a mandate to form a new government, and an extended battle to decide who leads Israel's next government seems likely.
Netanyahu claims to be able to lead Israel on a new path
With 99 percent of votes counted, Israel's central election commission said Kadima won 28 seats in the 120-member parliament, followed by Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party with 27.
Despite finishing second by a razor-thin margin, Israeli opposition leader Netanyahu claimed victory in Tuesday's elections and said he would become the country's next prime minister. He said the right-wing block garnered a majority in the Knesset and that Likud more than doubled its mandate.
"The people want to travel a new path," said Netanyahu, who was Israel's youngest premier in 1996. "Our path has won and we will be the path that will lead the nation. I can unite all forces of this nation and lead Israel."
Unity government possible
Livni, however, appealed for Netanyahu to join a national unity government that she would lead.
Livni said the people chose a Kadima-led government
"The people chose Kadima," Livni said. "We will form the next government led by Kadima.
"The way of Kadima is unity," she added. "We represent the common denominator of Israeli society. The land of Israel does not belong to the right wing, just as peace does not belong to the left wing."
Ultra-nationalist: We hold key to government
A unity government would likely be the only way to keep the ultra-nationalist Israel Beiteinu party out of the ruling administration. The party became the third largest in Israel with 15 parliamentary seats and its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, has said his party will decide whether Likud takes over or Kadima remains in power.
Lieberman said he was leaning toward a right-wing government
"We hold the key" to any new coalition, he said to loud cheers at his campaign headquarters in Jerusalem late Tuesday. "We determine the agenda (of the election campaign), that's the real achievement of Israel Beiteinu."
After speaking with Netanyahu and Livni, Liebermann said he could imagine working with either party as long as there was an agreement to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza.
"We must topple the Hamas regime," Liebermann said. "No truce with Hamas, no negotiations with Hamas direct or indirect."
Tuesday's election was dominated by security following Israel's war on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and its outcome will be crucial in determining the future of Middle East peacemaking.
President to decide
It will be up to President Peres to tap a potential prime minister
Under Israel's political system, the party with the most seats is not necessarily given the task of forming a new government. Instead, President Shimon Peres can choose whomever he believes will be able to cobble together a coalition.
A single party has never received the 61 seats necessary to rule Israel alone and just six of the past 17 parliaments were able to finish their four-year mandate.
Ahead of the election, most analysts said Netanyahu was the best position to corral the required 61 MPs.
Shift right clouds chances for peace
Careful not to voice a preference for a party ahead of the election, the Palestinian Authority was dismayed by the Israel's shift to the right.
The war in Gaza shifted the focus of campaigning in Israel
"It's obvious the Israelis have voted to paralyze the peace process," senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told the AFP news agency. "The outcome of the Israeli elections indicates there won't be in Israel a government capable of doing what is needed to achieve peace."
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said Israelis had voted for "the most bellicose candidates, those who are the most extremist in their rhetoric."
Netanyahu has vowed to topple Hamas and put a stop to rocket attacks which have continued sporadically since the Jan. 18 end of the Gaza war. He also wants peace talks to focus on improving economic conditions in the West Bank before other issues are discussed.
In her two and a half years as foreign minister, Livni -- a former Mossad spy -- spearheaded peace talks with the Palestinians which have made little visible progress.
Despite fears the foul weather would keep voters indoors, 65.2 percent of the almost 5.3 million eligible voters turned out, slightly higher than in the 2006 election.