JERUSALEM — Israeli voters delivered a murky result in Tuesday's national election that left the two top vote-getters declaring victory and claiming the right to become the next prime minister.
With early results showing centrist Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and her Kadima Party slightly ahead of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his conservative Likud Party, both leaders confidently predicted that they'd lead the next coalition government.
Though Livni held a one-seat plurality over Netanyahu with about 40 percent of the vote counted, the Likud leader appeared to have an edge in forming a new government because Israel's right-leaning parties were projected to secure a majority of seats in the 120-member Knesset.
"The national camp, led by Likud, has won a clear advantage," Netanyahu told his supporters. "The question is not what the polls said. The question is what reality says."
Speaking to her jubilant supporters, who wore "Believni!" buttons, Livni projected the same confidence as she urged other parties to join her in a unity government.
"Today, I hear the words 'national camp' once again, and I want to say in a clear voice: The land of Israel does not belong to the right, just as peace does not belong to the left."
The results propelled both political leaders into coalition talks with Israel's smaller parties that will play a pivotal role setting the ideological direction of the next Israeli government.
Ultimately, it will be up to Israeli President Shimon Peres to decide whether Livni or Netanyahu gets that right.
Israeli analysts projected that Netanyahu would have the best chance of leading the next government.
Livni failed to form a coalition government just four months ago when her inability to win support from the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party led to Tuesday's election. Shas was projected to win around 10 seats.
And her ability to create a stable, like-minded coalition was complicated by the rise in power of Israel's right-wing parties.
In addition to Likud's estimated 28 seats, the hard-right Israel Is Our Home party of Avigdor Lieberman was expected to win about 15 seats, fewer than expected but still enough to make it Israel's third-most important political party.
How the battle turns out could depend on whether Livni or Netanyahu wins support from Lieberman, who surpassed the Labor Party of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, which was projected to win 13 seats.
"Lieberman can be satisfied with one thing," Amnon Danker, former editor of Israel's newspaper Maariv, told Channel 1. "He is the linchpin. He is the kingmaker. He will determine who will be the prime minister."
It takes the support of 61 members of parliament to form a government.
Livni was expected first to try to persuade Netanyahu and Barak to join her in a broad unity government, isolating Lieberman, whose campaign centered on a controversial proposal to strip Israelis of their citizenship if they refuse to take a new loyalty oath.
Lieberman's rise has alarmed members of Israel's Arab minority. He's long cast doubts on the loyalty of Arab-Israeli leaders and has called for executing those who've met with Israel's enemies.
His message resonated in this campaign with a weary Israeli public that's looking for a fresh face, and his party increased its share of seats from 11 in the old parliament.
Israel's left-leaning parties suffered the most in Tuesday's election.
As the head of Labor, Barak might have expected a political boost after leading the military during its recent punishing 22-day offensive in the Gaza Strip, which killed more than 1,300 Palestinians.
Many Israelis came away disenchanted, however. Some thought that Israel should have toppled the militant Islamist group Hamas, which controls Gaza. Others wondered whether the toll in innocent Palestinian lives had been too great.
"The Labor movement is alive and breathing," Barak said. "It is capable of leading — and also of taking blows and recovering."
Minutes before the polls closed Tuesday night, Gaza militants sent a pointed message by firing a crude rocket that landed harmlessly in southern Israel.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2009