JERUSALEM — Inconclusive election results propelled Israel's political rivals into a fractious new fight Wednesday over the ideological direction of the country's next coalition government.
With Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and her centrist Kadima Party and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his more hawkish Likud Party both laying claim to lead the next government, the political standoff is likely to drag on for weeks.
When it's over, analysts said, Israel is likely to end up with a broad-but-shallow unity government that's too weak to negotiate any diplomatic breakthroughs — or a center-right coalition that's unwilling to accept painful compromises for peace that may be pushed by the Obama administration.
"This will not give us a stable government, and it cannot give us a government that can deal with the issues the world is interested in here on the peace process," said Yossi Alpher, a former senior Israeli Mossad officer and a co-founder of Bitterlemons.org, an on-line Middle East political journal.
The political uncertainty makes it more difficult for former Sen. George Mitchell, President Barack Obama's new Middle East special envoy, to make much progress until the new government takes shape — something that could drag into April.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Robert Wood declined to comment on the election outcome until a government is formed. He said that Mitchell is planning to make a second trip as Middle East envoy later this month.
Israeli politicians and pundits spent Wednesday debating and weighing the myriad political compromises that could produce the next ruling coalition.
The decision now rests largely in the hands of Israeli President Shimon Peres, the veteran Labor Party leader who must decide who has the best chance to form a stable government.
Livni emerged from election night with 28 of the Israeli parliament's 120 seats, while Netanyahu claimed 27 seats. However, election officials are still counting ballots from Israeli soldiers, who tend to support conservative parties, so Netanyahu and Livni could end up with an identical number of seats.
That could put pressure on both leaders to agree on a rarely used power-sharing deal in which Livni, 50, and Netanyahu, 59, would rotate as prime minister.
Ironically, the last politician to take part in such a deal was Peres, 85, who'll now decide whether to give Livni or Netanyahu the first chance to form a government.
As the head of a now-defunct left-leaning party in 1984, Peres agreed to a power-sharing deal with then-Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir. Peres first served two years as prime minister while Shamir served as foreign minister. Then the two leaders switched posts.
While Peres could push Livni and Netanyahu to take turns as prime minister, their ideological and personal differences could make it impossible. Netanyahu's allies dismissed the idea on Wednesday as a non-starter and pushed for establishment of a right-leaning government.
Peres will make his decision sometime next week after meeting with party leaders. That person will then have about 60 days to build a ruling coalition.
Because Israeli voters elected a majority of right-leaning lawmakers more ideologically aligned with Netanyahu than with Livni, most analysts predict that the Likud leader will be given the first chance to form a government.
Both leaders wasted no time Wednesday in trying to lock up support from Avigdor Lieberman, the ultranationalist leader of the Israel Is Our Home party, which is likely to be the linchpin in any new coalition.
Lieberman's estimated 15 seats in the Knesset positioned his party as the third-largest bloc in the next Israeli parliament, an ascent that coincided with the collapse of the nation's once-dominant Labor Party and its left-leaning allies.
Lieberman told supporters that he favors a center-right government, but he left open the possibility that he'd join forces with Livni.
However, Netanyahu and Livni face difficult choices in wooing Lieberman, 50, a polarizing figure whose confrontational stances on Arab-Israeli relations could make him a divisive choice for key posts such as foreign minister or defense minister.
No matter what happens, some analysts saw the results as a symptom of larger flaws of an Israeli political system that allows small parties to dictate the composition of each coalition government.
"What you have now are weak leaders who are neither admired nor respected by Israelis and who are presiding over weak parties," said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator in the Clinton administration and the author of "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Middle East Peace."
Obama's chances of securing a breakthrough regional peace deal here, as they did for his predecessor, hinge on ending Hamas military rule of the Gaza Strip and reuniting the fractured Palestinian groups under a new Palestinian Authority government.
The difficulties ahead were compounded on Wednesday when top Palestinian leaders working with pragmatic Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared that they wouldn't resume peace talks with the next government until Israel imposed a freeze on Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank.
Analysts said that Israeli voters, stung by militant attacks from south Lebanon in 2006 and from Gaza — both areas from which the Israeli military had withdrawn — turned away from centrist and center-left parties.
"I really think Hamas helped elect the right wing," said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, referring to the militant Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip.
In Ashkelon, Sderot and Beersheba, three southern Israeli cities hit by Hamas rocket fire, extreme right-wing parties got more than 70 percent of the vote, Makovsky said.
(Warren P. Strobel in Washington and McClatchy special correspondent Cliff Churgin in Jerusalem contributed to this article.)
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