Israel headed for a political gridlock on Wednesday, February 11, as its nail-biting snap polls produced rival winners and a far-right, anti-Arab kingmaker.
"Political stalemate," the mass-selling Yediot Aharonot daily ran a front-page headline next to the photos of rival Tzipi Livni and Benjamin Netanyahu, the leaders of the ruling Kadima and opposition Likud respectively.
With all votes counted, Kadima won 28 seats in the 120-member Knesset, just one more than the right-wing Likud party.
But both parties are claiming victory in the snap general elections and both Livni, the incumbent Foreign Minister, and Netanyahu, a former premier, want the premiership.
"Today the people have chosen Kadima," Livni, a former Mossad spy who hopes to be the first woman premier since Golda Meir in the 1970s, told cheering supporters in Tel Aviv late Tuesday, February 10.
"The Israeli public can smile again when we form the government," she said asking Netanyahu to join a unity government under her.
But the hawkish right-wing leader declared victory and vowed to be the next premier.
"The national camp led by the Likud has won an unambiguous majority," he told celebrating supporters at the Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv.
"I am certain that I will be able to form the next government…I can unite all forces of this nation and lead Israel."
Now it would be up to President Shimon Peres to decide, after hearing recommendations from political parties, who should get the first shot at forming a coalition government.
The chosen party will be given 28 days – a period that may be extended by up to 14 days – to form a coalition holding at least 61 seats in the Knesset.
As rivals claimed victory, the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party of controversial anti-Arab politician Avigdor Lieberman emerged as the uncontested kingmaker.
"I am very glad we hold the key" to the next government, Lieberman told his supporters.
Lieberman’s party won 15 seats, pushing the centre-left Labor party back to the fourth place with just 13 seats, the worst election results in its history.
The ultra-nationalist party will now be the powerful player in the coalition government negotiations.
Lieberman wants a "nationalist" government.
"We want a rightist government…and we are not hiding this," he told supporters.
However he added he was leaving his options open, indicating a possible Kadima-led government.
"The decision will not be simple."
Lieberman, a 50-year-old tough-talking Soviet immigrant and onetime bouncer, earned notoriety as an iron fist with Palestinians and Arabs.
He is known with his hardline stances against Israeli Arabs and had been derided as a racist by his critics.
He has called for the execution of Israeli Arab MPs who had dealings with Hamas.
He has also called for Gaza to be "treated like Chechnya" and for Israel to fight Hamas "just like the US did with the Japanese in World War II."
(IslamOnline.net and Agencies)