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Israeli results too close to call

ISRAELI Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and hard-line rival Benjamin Netanyahu both claimed victory in Israel's parliamentary election yesterday, but official results suggested the race was so close that it could be ultimately decided by a third candidate, a rising power among the hawks.

With 99 percent of the votes counted, Livni's centrist Kadima Party had 28 seats in the 120-seat parliament while Netanyahu's hawkish Likud Party had 27, according to unofficial results from Israel's election committee. The tally did not count thousands of votes by soldiers, to be counted today.

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.

Overall, hawks appeared to have won a clear majority of 65 seats, giving Netanyahu the upper hand in forming the next government.

However, Livni could try to persuade hawkish parties to join her and it appeared that one ultranationalist candidate in particular, Avigdor Lieberman, could single-handedly determine the country's next leader.

Whoever comes out on top, the political wrangling following Tuesday's vote was likely to drag on for weeks, with the fate of international Mideast peace efforts in the balance.

A win by Livni, who favors giving up land to make room for a Palestinian state, would boost the Obama administration'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 United States on a collision course.

"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. "Today the people chose Kadima. ... We will form the next government led by Kadima."

Earlier, exit polls showed Livni with a slight lead, but strong gains by right-wing parties overall would make it difficult and perhaps impossible, for her to form a government.

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 opposed to her vision of giving up land in exchange for a peace deal with the Palestinians.

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 he was proud of the gains by his party. He called for a broad-based coalition, but said he would first turn to his "natural partners in the national camp."


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