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Israel in Political Limbo As Livni, Netanyahu Each Claim Victory

Israel has been plunged into political uncertainty following Tuesday's national elections in which hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu and centrist Tzipi Livni are each claiming victory for their parties. With 99 percent of the vote counted, Livni's Kadima party is leading Mr. Netanyahu's Likud party by one seat in the Israeli parliament.

Final official results may not come until Thursday or Friday, after thousands of ballots cast by soldiers and diplomats abroad are counted. Even with all votes counted, no party could have an outright majority.

It will then be up to President Shimon Peres to decide who should form a coalition government, a process that could take weeks of political wrangling.

What is clear in these elections is that Israeli voters, whose top concern in these elections was security, have largely swung to the right.

The smaller, right wing Yisrael Beiteinu party led by Avigdor Lieberman - a former nightclub bouncer who ran on an anti-Arab platform - won a significant number of new seats in the parliament. His party's new clout could make him influential in the decision of who emerges as the new prime minister.

Lieberman says he has been in contact with both Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni, whose parties received the most votes.

Speaking to his supporters early Wednesday, Lieberman called for a tough new approach to terrorism.

Lieberman said his party's priorities are clear. First and foremost, he said Israel must find a way to deal decisively with terror, and he said it must not be through negotiation, direct or indirect.

The measures he proposes include re-drawing Israel's borders to exclude Arab Israeli communities and put them under the control of the Palestinian Authority. He also wants to force Israeli Arabs who reside within Israel's borders to pledge loyalty to the Jewish State. About 1.4 million Arabs live in Israel.

Analysts say Lieberman's message could resonate with the Netanyahu camp, which does not generally favor negotiations with the Palestinians and wants to topple the Islamist Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip.

Hebrew University Politics Professor Abraham Diskin says Mr. Netanyahu will likely be able to tap support among the smaller right-wing and centrist parties and secure enough parliament seats to form a government. But Diskin tells VOA Mr. Netanyahu will have to be cautious in pursuing a partnership with Lieberman if he wants to build a lasting coalition.

"These two personalities did cooperate before," he said. "Lieberman was the right hand of Netanyahu within the Likud but I think that a right-wing government is not to the like of Netanyahu because he will have six different partners and almost every partner has some extreme views and may endanger the stability of the government."

Those partners would include ultra-orthodox religious parties that are at odds with Lieberman's secular platform, which is viewed by some as anti-religious.

Observers say that with the losses suffered by the left-of-center factions in these elections, Tzipi Livni - who portrayed herself as a peacemaker - could have a tougher time bringing together a coalition.