Tzipi Livni's party holds 28 seats, one more than Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud, which is predicted to form coalition government.
Jerusalem - Final results in Israel's general elections were announced today, confirming that the centrist Kadima party of the foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, won only one seat more than Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud party.
With military and overseas ballots counted, Kadima had 28 seats - far short of the 61 needed to govern alone. Likud won 27 seats, while the far-right Israel Our Home party won 15 seats, making its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, a likely kingmaker. The final results, which include the votes of several thousand soldiers and Israelis living abroad, were unchanged from the preliminary results.
As Israeli leaders tried to break out of their political deadlock, a senior figure in Livni's Kadima party said today that it would not join an extreme rightwing government led by Netanyahu.
Livni is struggling to form a majority coalition that would see her become only the second female prime minister in Israel's history. Most analysts expect Netanyahu will eventually emerge as the country's next leader, although there are still days of tough negotiations ahead.
"We won the battle, but lost the war," one Kadima minister was reported as saying.
Netanyahu is thought to want to form a broad coalition that includes Kadima, rather than relying on a narrow majority of rightwing parties that would oppose any peace moves with the Palestinians and bring confrontation with Washington. Reports said Netanyahu might offer Livni the job of foreign minister and her deputy, Shaul Mofaz, the post of defence minister.
However, Meir Sheetrit, the current interior minister and number seven on the Kadima list of candidates, made it clear today that Kadima would not submit easily. "We will join a Netanyahu government only if it is not an extreme rightwing government," he told Army Radio. "We are not afraid to sit in the opposition."
Sheetrit said Livni was still working to form her own coalition. "We need to think about what's best for Israel and get away from the politics," he said in an interview with Israel Radio.
"Currently, it seems most likely that the government to be formed will be an extremist religious coalition led by Netanyahu. If a government like this is established I anticipate it will have a very hard life, and the lives of Israel's citizens will be even harder ... With all due respect to Netanyahu, he cannot manage a government like that. He will have trouble in every realm."
Livni herself said she was still working on a coalition that she could lead, but said she would not pay "an exorbitant price" to have other parties join her. "I can also put together a coalition that is united around the peace process. Netanyahu doesn't want that, and couldn't do it even if he did, with his rightwing partners," Livni said.
Last autumn, Livni failed in her first attempt to put together a majority coalition that would have made her prime minister following the decision by Ehud Olmert to stand down. Now she is heavily reliant on wooing Lieberman, whose party came in a strong third, buoyed by its anti-Arab stance. Lieberman wants the country's 20% Arab minority to swear an oath of loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state or lose their citizenship.
Livni has reportedly offered to adopt some of his policies on civil marriage and on creating a presidential style of government. But Netanyahu, who also needs Lieberman's support, has reportedly offered him the job of finance minister.
Lieberman met both Livni and Netanyahu yesterday but has not said publicly whom he will back. "I know exactly who I will recommend to the president, but I am not telling because it is too early," he said.
Once official results are formally published next Wednesday, the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, will consult all party leaders and then choose one person to form a majority coalition. Even within the right wing, all is not entirely cohesive.
The religious rightwing parties said today they were considering forming a bloc to outweigh Lieberman because they are concerned about some of his secular policies. However, the ultra-Orthodox can be expected eventually to follow Netanyahu into a coalition.
"We must form a government based on the nationalist camp," said Eli Yishai, the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. "The nation has chosen the right."