TEL AVIV, Israel — In a national parliamentary election that comes just weeks after a destructive military offensive in Gaza and amid serious questions as to whether the Israeli-Palestinian peace process can ever be reassembled, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has emerged as the front-runner.
In the last few hours of voting, it was still too early to tell how she would form a government and whether the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu might still be able to cobble together a coalition that would put him in the prime minister's office once again.
Both Netanyahu and Livni have said they intend to form the next cabinet, and both claimed victory after the vote.
With 99 percent of votes counted, Haaretz reported that Livni's Kadima Party had won 28 seats in the 120-member Knesset (parliament), compared with 27 seats for Netanyahu's right-wing Likud Party.
Exit polls broadcast on Israel's three TV stations showed Kadima winning 29 to 30 seats and Likud winning 27 to 28 seats. Following those parties was Yisrael Beiteinu, a far-right nationalist party led by former minister Avigdor Liberman, which appeared to have won 14 or 15 seats, according to the exit polls.
The split vote means that none of the parties is close to commanding an absolute majority in a new parliament. Now, Livni and Netanyahu will try to recruit coalition partners.
In that effort, the hard-line Netanyahu stands a better chance — overall, the hawkish and religious parties appear to have won about 64 seats, compared with about 56 for the dovish, left-wing and Arab parties, exit polls forecast.
If the exit polls are correct, the right-wing parties will gain more power than they did in the last elections in 2006. (Netanyahu noted that in the last elections they had 50.)
The returns express the bad mood in the country following years of rocket attacks from Gaza and "the inconclusive feeling" over the results of the recent battles in the Gaza Strip, according to Shlomo Avineri, a professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Israelis feel "besieged," a feeling that causes people to move to the right, he said.
In the final days before the elections, Livni attempted to stem the tide with optimistic talk about prospects for peace. Some Arab countries consider the main threats to be Iran and extremist Islam, not Israel, she said last week at the Herzliya Conference near Tel Aviv.
"There is a strategic change here. An historical opportunity," she stressed. Referring to her year-long negotiations with Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, she said an agreement "is reachable. We cannot afford to miss the opportunity."
Netanyahu, on the other hand, stressed the need to topple the Islamic Hamas regime in Gaza. He opposed territorial concessions in the West Bank.
"Any territory that we will evacuate today, or in the foreseeable future, will be seized by (the Islamic Hamas) proxies. The Palestinian Authority's forces are not strong enough to fight terror. Therefore, if we get out, the extremists will move in," he warned.
Liberman, who seeks to limit Israeli Arabs' political rights, has been gaining ground in recent years. Born in Moldova under Soviet rule, he has appealed to many of the 1 million Russian immigrants to Israel, most of them seeking a leader who will deal harshly with Israel's enemies.
Avineri attributed Liberman's latest gains to a backlash after Israeli Arabs demonstrated against the recent Israeli offensive in Gaza and carried Hamas flags.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak's Labor Party lost support in the elections. According to exit polls, Barak's party will win between 12 to 13 parliamentary seats.
In the coming days Kadima and Likud will probably try to win support from smaller parties in the new Knesset. Eventually, President Shimon Peres will summon the parties. Each of the big parties wants to be in a position to demand that Peres ask them to form the new government. If Livni becomes the leader, she would be the first woman in that position since the 1970s.
Neither Livni nor Netanyahu is expected to rely solely on his or her own bloc. Livni's is too small. And some of the extreme right-wing parties would tie Netanyahu's hands, resulting in a situation where he is unable to budge on the peace process, something that wouldn't sit well with U.S. President Barack Obama's administration.
That is why Netanyahu and Livni will probably put out feelers to form a centrist government made up of Kadima, Likud, Labor and several other parties. Barak would be the natural choice for defense minister. Netanyahu served under him when both were young officers in a reconnaissance unit.
Another possibility, in case of a deadlock, would be a rotation in which Livni would be prime minister for part of the Knesset's tenure and Netanyahu would lead the government during the other part. Israel has tried that sort of rotating leadership, with success.
Avineri said he believed most Israelis would welcome a Kadima-Likud-Labor coalition.
But the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would not improve, he predicted.
According to Avineri, the peace process is in deep trouble. "The gap between the most moderate Israeli elements and the most moderate Palestinians is very deep," Avineri said.
The next Israeli government will either be as moderate as the outgoing government or less so, he added.