Israel headed for political gridlock on Wednesday after its election produced rival winners.
Analysts said the country was as split as the Palestinians and the prospects of the two making peace were dimmer than ever.
Centrist Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party won the most votes but had little chance of building enough support for a coalition. Right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu can get the support, but analysts said the likely coalition would prove dysfunctional.
“I won,” read the headline of the country’s biggest newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, over photos of both leaders. But to some commentators, the rival claims showed Israel had lost. “One thing is clear to all Israeli voters,” said the paper’s Eitan Haber. “The political system is shattered.”
President Shimon Peres must now decide whether to call on Livni or Netanyahu, who then has 42 days to form a government.
Israeli media said it seemed he would have no choice but to tap Netanyahu if the majority rightist parties all back him.
But it would be the first time in Israel’s 60-year history that the winner of an election would be passed over.
The results, not yet official, gave Netanyahu 27 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, while Livni’s Kadima won 28.
She said she would be prime minister and invited Netanyahu to join a “unity government”. But Netanyahu said he would lead the “nationalist camp” in parliament, and control 64 seats.
“With God’s help I will lead the next government,” Netanyahu, 59, told supporters of his Likud party.
“Tzipi Livni has only the slightest chance, or none at all, of forming a government under her leadership,” said Abraham Diskin, a political scientist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.
HARD RIGHT IN PIVOTAL POSITION
Avigdor Lieberman’s far-right, anti-Arab Yisrael Beiteinu party, now third largest, emerged as a potential kingmaker.
“We want a nationalist government. We want a rightist government,” he said. A deal was needed as fast as possible because the state “has been paralysed for half a year”.