JERUSALEM, Feb 11 – Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and hawkish ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu were locked in battle on Wednesday for the helm of Israel’s government after a photo-finish national election.
Livni’s centrist Kadima party won 28 seats in the 120-member parliament, followed by Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party with 27, according to results issued with almost all ballots counted.
But an overall lurch to the right has made Netanyahu more likely to return to the premiership.
"He lost but he will conquer," declared the tabloid Maariv newspaper.
Hardline parties gained ground on the back of the Gaza war and widespread concerns about security, and the right’s likely return to power could hinder US-backed efforts to revive faltering Middle East peace talks.
Netanyahu, 59, said he was confident he would head the next government after Likud — which suffered a devastating defeat in 2006 — more than doubled its representation and right-wing parties won an overall majority of 65 seats.
"The national camp led by the Likud has won an unambiguous majority," Netanyahu told supporters at party headquarters in Tel Aviv.
"I am certain that I will be able to form the next government," he said. "I can unite all forces of this nation and lead Israel."
Livni also claimed victory, telling jubilant supporters that "the people have chosen Kadima" and urging Netanyahu to join a national unity government under her leadership.
"Israel does not belong to the right in the same way that peace does not belong to the left," said the 50-year-old lawyer and former Mossad spy.
Under Israel’s political system, it is the party considered best able to form a coalition — and not necessarily the winner of the most seats — which will be tasked by the president with forming a government .
"If the exit polls are correct, the right-wing bloc led by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu will comprise 63-64 seats, while the centre-left bloc, headed by Livni, will take 56-57 seats," the Haaretz newspaper said.
"This means that a win in the polls does not necessarily mean that the next government will have a centre-left bent."
The far-right Yisrael Beitenu party of Avigdor Lieberman — set to become kingmaker in the coalition negotiations — took third place with 15 seats and the Labour party of Defence Minister Ehud Barak came in fourth with 13, a historic low for the centre-left party that dominated Israeli politics for decades.
The ultra-Orthodox Shas party came in fifth with 11 seats, rounding out the overall gains by the right.
The Western-backed Palestinian Authority has been careful not to voice publicly a preference for any candidate, but senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat expressed dismay at the right’s strong showing.
"It’s obvious the Israelis have voted to paralyse the peace process," he told AFP.
Hamas — the target of a devastating three-week Israeli offensive in Gaza that killed over 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis — had originally expressed little interest in the vote, saying all Israeli leaders were equally bad.
But Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum later said Israelis had voted for "the most bellicose candidates, those who are the most extremist in their rhetoric."
Despite fears the foul weather would keep voters indoors, 65.2 percent of the almost 5.3 million eligible voters turned out for Tuesday’s vote, slightly higher than in the 2006 election.
For weeks, opinion polls have given the lead to the Netanyahu, a smooth-talking media-savvy tactician who became Israel’s youngest prime minister in 1996 and again presented himself as a security hardliner.
But in recent days, Livni had clawed back some of the ground lost by Kadima, which is still reeling from a series of corruption scandals that forced Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign last year.
The biggest surprise in the election has been the meteoric rise of Lieberman, a Moldovan-born former bouncer who has taken a hard line against Israel’s Arab minority and been derided as a racist by his critics.
"I am very glad we hold the key" to the next government, Lieberman told his supporters, adding that he was "leaning towards a right-wing government" but would not make any immediate decisions.
During the campaign, Netanyahu vowed to topple Hamas and put a stop to rocket attacks which have continued sporadically since the January 18 end of the Gaza war.
He has also ruled out peace talks on core issues with the Western-backed Palestinian government in the occupied West Bank in the near future, saying he will instead focus on improving economic conditions in the territory.
In her two and a half years as foreign minister, Livni spearheaded peace talks with the Palestinians which have made little visible progress.