JERUSALEM — Inconclusive election results propelled Israel's political rivals into a fractious new fight Wednesday over the ideological direction of the country's next coalition government.
With Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and her centrist Kadima Party and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his more hawkish Likud Party both laying claim to lead the next government, the political standoff is likely to drag on for weeks.
The political uncertainty makes it more difficult for former Sen. George Mitchell, President Obama's new Middle East special envoy, to make much progress until the new government takes shape — something that could drag into April.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Robert Wood declined to comment on the election outcome until a government is formed. He said Mitchell is planning to make a second trip as Middle East envoy this month.
Livni emerged from election night with 28 of the Israeli Parliament's 120 seats, while Netanyahu claimed 27 seats. Election officials are still counting ballots from Israeli soldiers, who tend to support conservative parties, so Netanyahu and Livni could end up with an identical number of seats.
That could put pressure on both leaders to agree on a rarely used power-sharing deal in which Livni, 50, and Netanyahu, 59, would rotate as prime minister.