JERUSALEM -Israeli voters delivered a split decision in national elections yesterday, sparking competing claims by backers of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni over who will be the next prime minister.
Voters appeared to give Livni's Kadima Party, which favors negotiations with the Palestinians, a slight and unexpected edge over Netanyahu's Likud, which has been critical of peace talks, according to nearly complete returns and exit polls.
But the overall shift in Israel's parliament, the Knesset, was sharply to the right. That could make it difficult for Livni to build the coalition she would need to govern, particularly if she intends to pursue talks aimed at creating a Palestinian state.
Both candidates claimed victory, and the political jockeying was expected to intensify in the coming days. It will fall to President Shimon Peres to decide who gets first crack at forming a government - a tricky task in Israel's fractious political culture. Traditionally, the president chooses the party that receives the most seats in the 120-member Knesset, but he is not obligated to do so. Peres will now consult with all the parties to determine who has the best chance of creating a stable government.
The question of who will lead Israel could linger for weeks or more at a time when the nation faces threats from Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and an Iranian government with nuclear ambitions.
Netanyahu, who held the prime ministership during the late 1990s, delivered a victory speech just after midnight today in which he told cheering supporters in Tel Aviv that "the people of Israel have spoken clearly and sharply. The national camp, headed by the Likud, has won a clear victory."
Netanyahu signaled he intended to lead a coalition of parties that, like his own, take a hawkish stance toward Iran and believe that the creation of a Palestinian state be a threat to Israeli security.
Livni, who would be Israel's first female prime minister since Golda Meir led the country more than three decades ago, served as lead negotiator during last year's unsuccessful talks with the Palestinians. Livni has favored continued efforts toward reaching a deal.
"Today the nation chose Kadima," an energetic Livni declared to a crowd of backers, who serenaded her with chants of "the next prime minister."
Livni said she would attempt to form a national unity government that includes parties across the political spectrum, including Likud.
With votes from nearly 90 percent of polling stations counted by early this morning, Kadima had won an estimated 29 seats in the 120-member Israeli parliament. Netanyahu's Likud garnered 27.
Ultra-nationalist leader Avigdor Lieberman was projected to place third, with 15 seats. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, head of the center-left Labor Party that once dominated Israeli politics, was forecast to drop to fourth at 13 seats.
Lieberman and Barak, plus the leaders of several smaller parties, could now become kingmakers as Netanyahu and Livni hustle to assemble coalitions.
Roughly speaking, Likud and smaller parties to its right appeared to control about 64 seats, while Kadima and parties to its left held about 47 seats. Parties representing Arabs with Israeli citizenship, which traditionally do not join the government, won about nine seats.
That breakdown suggests Livni would have to recruit at least one party that opposes land-for-peace talks with the Palestinians if she wants to govern.
Itzhak Galnoor, a political scientist with Hebrew University, said the muddled results present an opportunity for a unity government involving all four of the major parties. Livni, he said, was well positioned to lead it. "Because she is in the center, she could form a coalition with parties on the right and parties on the left," he said. "But that's too logical, so it probably won't happen."