JERUSALEM - Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and hard-line rival Benjamin Netanyahu both claimed victory Tuesday in Israel's parliamentary election, but official results suggested the race was too close to call.
Right-wing parties, including Netanyahu's Likud Party, appear to have won a clear majority of 64 seats in the 120-seat parliament, which would give Netanyahu the upper hand in forming the next government.
However, with 99 per cent of the votes counted, Livni's centrist Kadima Party had 28 seats, while Likud had 27. Those results could change by a seat or two when soldiers' votes are tallied Thursday evening.
The winner of the election wasn't clear, in part because she could try to form a coalition with hawkish parties.
It appeared one ultra nationalist candidate, Avigdor Lieberman, could single-handedly determine the country's next leader with his decision of whom to join.
Whoever comes out on top, the political wrangling was likely to drag on for weeks, and with it the fate of international Mideast peace efforts.
A win by Livni, who favours giving up land to make room for a Palestinian state, would boost President Barack Obama's goal of pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
A government led by Netanyahu, who opposes concessions to the Palestinians, could put Israel and the U.S. on a collision course.
Netanyahu says he would allow West Bank settlements to expand and is seen as likely to contemplate military action against Iran.
"With God's help, I will lead the next government," Netanyahu told a raucous crowd of cheering supporters chanting his nickname, Bibi.
"The national camp, led by the Likud, has won a clear advantage."
Soon after, Livni took the stage before a crowd of flag-waving supporters and flashed a V for victory sign.
"Today, the people chose Kadima. ... We will form the next government led by Kadima."
Even if Livni could overcome the formidable obstacles and become Israel's second female prime minister after Golda Meir, she would almost certainly be hindered by right-wing coalition partners.
They're opposed to her vision of giving up land in exchange for a peace deal with the Palestinians.
The election was called after she failed to put together a ruling coalition when scandal-plagued Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced he was stepping down last fall.
Nevertheless, applause, cheers and whistling erupted at Kadima headquarters in Tel Aviv as television stations began reporting their exit polls, with supporters jumping up and down and giving each other high-fives and hugs.
In his speech, Netanyahu told his supporters that he was proud of the gains by his hard-line party.
He called for a broad-based coalition, but said he would first turn to his "natural partners in the national camp," a reference to other hard-liners opposed to peace concessions.
The partial results marked a dramatic slide for Netanyahu, who had held a solid lead in opinion polls heading into the election.
Israelis vote for parties, not individuals.
Since no party won a parliamentary majority, the leader of one of the major parties must try to put together a coalition with other factions - a process that can take up to six weeks.
In coming days, President Shimon Peres will ask the leader who he believes is most capable of forming a coalition to try to put together a government.
If Livni's projected victory holds, it is likely due to a strong showing by Lieberman, who appears to have taken a sizable chunk of votes that would have otherwise gone to Netanyahu.
The partial results gave Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu Party 16 seats, placing it in third place behind Kadima and Likud - and ahead of Labour, the party that ruled Israel for decades.
That gives Lieberman, who based his campaign on denying citizenship to Israeli Arabs he considers disloyal, a key role in coalition building.
Lieberman said his party's strong showing means he holds the key to forming the new Israeli government.
He said he had spoken to both Livni and Netanyahu and told them he could be persuaded to join either one.
"It is up to Lieberman who will form the next coalition," said Menachem Hofnung, a professor of political science at Hebrew University.
"Lieberman has emerged as the kingmaker. He is the winner of these elections, and it depends on who he sides with over the next few weeks as to who will be prime minister."
Netanyahu, who was prime minister a decade ago, portrayed himself as the candidate best equipped to deal with the threats Israel faces - Hamas militants in Gaza, Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and behind them an Iranian regime that Israel believes is developing nuclear weapons.
He has derided the outgoing government's peace talks as a waste of time, and said relations with the Palestinians should be limited to developing their battered economy.
Livni has led Israel's peace talks the past year.
She has pledged to continue the negotiations with the moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank.
At the same time, she advocates a tough line against the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip, and was one of the architects against a bruising Israeli military offensive in Gaza last month.