Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima Party was on Wednesday narrowly ahead of Benjamin Netanyahu's ultra-rightist Likud in the general elections, even as both the leaders claimed victory.
With over 50 per cent of the votes counted in the Israeli polls held yesterday, Kadima Party led the race with 29 seats, closely followed by rival Likud Party with 27 seats, amid claims by both the leaders that the mandate supports their claim to form the next government.
Earlier, all the exit polls predicted Kadima to emerge the single largest party ahead of Likud. The elections were held in the backdrop of 22-day offensive against Hamas with the security as the most prominent election issue.
The indecisive exit polls results, which also saw Israel Beiteinu rising to 14-15 seats and Labour slipping back to only 13, has set the scene for numerous potential coalition scenarios.
Livni yesterday argued that whoever headed the biggest party should be deemed to have "won the public's trust" and should thus be allowed to form the next coalition.
Going by the same logic she declared victory following the announcement of exit poll results by various media outlets, staking claim to form the government.
"Today the people chose Kadima. ... We will form the next government led by Kadima," the foreign minister told supporters at her party headquarters.
"No one can deny the wishes of the voters", Livni added vowing to keep Israel a democratic and Jewish state.
However, Likud leaders started working on constructing a "blocking" majority that would deny Livni any such prospect.
Party Chairman Netanyahu declared victory in parliamentary elections as he addressed supporters in a speech saying that the nationalist bloc won a comfortable majority.
"Even if exit polls are accurate, there is no doubt regarding the only conclusion they point to - the Israeli people have said their word in a clear fashion, the nationalist bloc, led by Likud, won a clear victory," the former prime minister said.
"The question is not what the polls say. The question is what the reality is. From this day on, the right wing bloc rises to an absolute majority in the Knesset," the Likud chair added.
Netanyahu also said that he has started negotiations with possible coalition partners. In view of the fractured mandate, the support of the smaller parties is important.
Avigdor Lieberman, a hardliner who is a strong proponent of swapping Arab dominated pockets in Israel for Jewish settlements under any peace negotiation, has emerged as the kingmaker.
Both Livni and Netanyahu called upon the Arab hating leader whose slogan for the election campaign was "No Loyalty, No Citizenship".