JERUSALEM — Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and hard-line rival Benjamin Netanyahu both claimed victory Tuesday in Israel's parliamentary election, but official results showed a race so close it could be decided by a third candidate — a rising power among the hawks.
Right-wing parties — including Netanyahu's Likud Party — appear to have won a clear majority of 65 seats in the 120-seat Parliament, which would give Netanyahu the upper hand in forming the next government.
However, with 99 percent of the votes counted, Livni's centrist Kadima Party had 28 seats, while Likud had 27. Those results could change by a seat or two — enough to alter the outcome — when soldiers' votes are tallied Thursday evening.
The winner of the election wasn't clear in part because Livni could try to form a coalition with hawkish parties. It appeared ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman, who based his campaign on denying citizenship to Israeli Arabs he considers disloyal, could single-handedly determine the country's next leader with his decision of whom to join.
He declared after the vote that he had spoken to both Livni and Netanyahu and told them he could be persuaded to join either one, but he added that he wanted a "nationalist right-wing government."
Whoever comes out on top, the political wrangling was likely to drag on for weeks, and with it the fate of international Mideast peace efforts.
A win by Livni, who favors giving up land to make room for a Palestinian state, would boost President Obama'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. Netanyahu says he would allow West Bank settlements to expand and is seen as likely to contemplate military action against Iran.
Palestinian officials said Tuesday that no matter who leads Israel's new government, the Israelis will have to commit to a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank before peace talks can resume.
"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 and flashed a V for victory sign. "Today the people chose Kadima. … We will form the next government led by Kadima."
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.
The election was called after she failed to put together a ruling coalition when scandal-plagued Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced he was stepping down last fall.