Tight Election in Israel as Nation Votes

Two weeks ago it was a sure thing -- Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu led his nearest rival by a margin of 10 parliamentary seats. All the polls said he would be the next prime minister.

But as Israelis go to the polls today, the margin is now too close to call. Tzipi Livni, the leader of the centrist Kadima Party and the current foreign minister is closing the gap, believes she can win.

Their fate lies in the hands of the undecided voters -- almost 20 percent of the electorate, according to the pollsters.

Whoever wins when results are released Wednesday morning faces days and weeks of coalition building before Israel has its new government.

VIDEO: Israel on Eve of ElectionsPlay

President Shimon Peres selects the party leader most likely in his opinion to be able to form a stable coalition. It is usually the leader of the party with the most seats in the Knesset, but it doesn't have to be. That's where the great uncertainty of this election lies.

What will the election's cast of supporting characters tell Peres when he interviews them? Whom will they say they want to be prime minister?

The surprise package of this campaign may wield enormous influence over this process. He is Avigdor Lieberman of the extremist right wing party Israel Beitenu or Israel, Our Home.

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.

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

In the highly charged mood after Israel's military onslaught in Gaza, the appeal of Lieberman's views has widened. The polls predict his will be the third largest party in the Knesset. He is likely to be a senior minister and a key player in any future government.

The math of the likely result suggests a right wing government, one that will be far less willing to make concessions and become a partner in President Obama's vision for peace.

Israeli Elections, a Tight Race

Netanyahu has already been prime minister during the Clinton years in the 1990s. It was a time of tension between Tel Aviv and Washington. He does not support the establishment of a Palestinian state and his party's ideological commitment to a Greater Israel incorporating most of the occupied Palestinian territories could cause tension with the new administration.

His campaign pledges not to shut down illegal settlements or to even contemplate the return to Syria of the occupied Golan Heights would not have gone down well in the White House or State Department.

The election campaign has until its last days been marked by a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Israelis hold their political leaders in low esteem. Many have said how much they long for a leader with the charisma and appeal of an Obama.

There is no great optimism for the country's next government. Israelis, despite their military's regional supremacy and U.S. support, are voting under a cloud of apprehension and fear.

Despite Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's offer today to open a dialogue with the U.S., Iran's nuclear program continues unabated. Hamas remains in power in Gaza. Hezbollah has rearmed with new missiles and is now an active member of the Lebanese government. The cold winds of the global recession are beginning to be felt. As they have before, Israelis are being drawn to candidates who promise them security.

Israel's next government, as with so many of its past ones, will be a coalition of parties and personalities with distinct and often opposing ideologies.

This morning's political columnists are already predicting just how long it will last and how little it will be able to achieve.

It won't be the government Obama or his new Mideast envoy George Mitchell hoped for.