Israeli Elections End in Stalemate

The front pages of Israel's newspapers say it all today.

Pictures of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu split the front page of Ma'ariv ; Livni, proclaimed for her comeback from a seemingly hopeless pre-election deficit and Netanyahu, for his leadership of a large right-wing bloc in the new Knesset.

On Tuesday night, with Livni heading for a one-seat advantage, both claimed election victory in front of their supporters in Tel Aviv.

"I won," read the headline of Yedioth Ahronoth, the country's biggest newspaper, next to photos of both leaders.

But some commentators said the rival claims showed Israel had lost because of Tuesday's election that was too close to call. "One thing is clear to all Israeli voters," the paper's Eitan Haber said. "The political system is shattered."

Both believe they should be given the right to form Israel's next government. Throughout the country's 60-year history, the leader of Israel's largest party in parliament has been the one who gets that job. But this time it may be different.

The majority of seats in the parliament will be occupied by members of nationalist and right-wing parties, which will make it easier for Netanyahu to pull together a stable government of like-minded partners.

During his appearance Tuesday night in front of conservative Likud supporters in Tel Aviv, it was a point he was quick to make, perhaps to mask his loss of such a commanding pre-election lead. "The people of Israel have spoken loud and clear," he said. "The national bloc headed by the Likud has won a significant advantage."

Livni, with her credentials as head of the centrist Kadima Party and her desire to negotiate peace with moderate Palestinians, will find it hard to build a workable coalition, despite winning the most votes.

But that didn't seem to affect her mood this morning as she set off for the first of many secret meetings: "The people have a choice, I feel a great responsibility to use the strength I received last night to unite the people," she said.

The third party's candidate and surprise of this campaign will wield enormous influence in the next few days.

The support of Avigdor Lieberman, the so-called "kingmaker," from the extremist right wing party Israel Beiteinu (meaning "Israel, our home," in Hebrew) will prove crucial to either candidate.

The Kingmaker Speaks

An immigrant from the former Soviet republic of Moldova, Lieberman has run his campaign on a platform of nationalism and his slogan "No Loyalty, No Citizenship" is a direct threat against Israel's Arab minority.

His followers have long been unwilling partners in the Jewish state and many Israeli Jews resent their often open support for the Palestinian cause.

"We want a nationalist government," Lieberman said. "We want a rightist government ... and we are not hiding this."

"It is clear that we need to form a government as fast as possible. The state of Israel has been paralyzed for half a year. ... People may not be aware, but we are still without a budget ... in conditions of global financial crisis."

He said he had met Livni and would meet with Netanyahu to "explore our positions fast."

Many Palestinians were pessimistic about the chances of any Israeli government helping their cause.

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