Israeli voters on Tuesday delivered a split decision in national elections,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 Livnis Kadima Party,which favours negotiations with the Palestinians,a slight and unexpected edge over Netanyahus Likud,which has been critical of peace talks,according to nearly complete returns and exit polls.
But the overall shift in Israels 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 US-backed talks aimed at creating a Palestinian state.
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 on Wednesday 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 would present a threat to Israeli security.
Livni,who would be Israels first woman Prime Minister since Golda Meir led the country more than three decades ago,served as lead negotiator during last years unsuccessful negotiations with Palestine. 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.
With votes from nearly 90 per cent of polling stations counted by early Wednesday morning,Kadima had won an estimated 29 seats in the 120-member Israeli Parliament. Netanyahus Likud garnered 27. Ultra-nationalist leader Avigdor Lieberman was projected to place third,with 15 seats.