JERUSALEM Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's Kadima Party was forecast to eke out a surprising victory in Israel's election Tuesday, but exit polls showed strong support for hard-line rivals that will make it difficult for her to form a coalition government.
The exit polls announced on Israeli TV stations said the centrist Kadima had a narrow edge over Benjamin Netanyahu's hard-line Likud Party. The results, if confirmed, marked a stunning turn of events for Netanyahu, who had held a solid lead in opinion polls until just before the parliamentary election.
At Kadima's election night headquarters, the crowd erupted in cheers when the results came out, with some supporters jumping up and down, giving each other high fives and hugs, and screaming and whistling. Netanyahu's party also claimed victory, saying it was in a better position to put together a parliamentary majority.
A hawkish coalition would complicate things for President Barack Obama, who is promising an aggressive push for peace by his administration.
Israelis vote for parties, not individuals. Since no party won a parliamentary majority, the leader of one of the major parties must try to put together a coalition with other factions a process that can take up to six weeks.
The exit polls predicted that ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman, an advocate of stripping Israeli Arabs of their citizenship, would play a key role in the next coalition.
Netanyahu, who was prime minister a decade ago, portrayed himself as the candidate best equipped to deal with the threats Israel faces Hamas militants in Gaza, Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and behind them an Iranian regime that Israel believes is developing nuclear weapons. He has derided the outgoing government's peace talks as a waste of time, and said relations with the Palestinians should be limited to developing their battered economy.
Livni, who has led Israel's peace talks for the past year, has pledged to continue the negotiations with the moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank. At the same time, she has advocated a tough line against the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, and was one of the architects against a bruising Israeli military offensive in Gaza last month.
Even if the TV exit poll predictions hold up and they sometimes do not when elections are close it's not clear if Livni will be able to form Israel's next government and become prime minister.
The projections showed hard-line parties winning as many as 66 seats in the 120-member parliament, while liberal parties captured just 54 seats. Preliminary results were expected early Wednesday.
In coming days, President Shimon Peres will ask the leader who he believes is most capable of forming a coalition to try to put together a government.
If he chooses Livni, she would have to reach out to hard-liners. Alternatively, he could turn to Netanyahu, who appeared to be in a better position to put together a majority.
At Likud headquarters, activists dismissed Kadima's predicted edge and predicted Netanyahu would be tapped to form the next government.
"I am certain that Netanyahu will be the next prime minister," said Likud lawmaker Gilad Erdan. "Netanyahu has a clear advantage because the right wing parties have a larger bloc. The test is not which party gets the most votes, but which candidate has the best chance to form a coalition, and that person is Benjamin Netanyahu."
Israel's three main TV stations released exit polls as voting ended at 10 p.m. Tuesday.
Channel One and Channel 10 each gave 30 of 120 parliament seats to Kadima and 28 seats to Likud. Channel Two gave 29 seats to Kadima and 27 to Likud.
Perhaps the biggest winner was the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu Party, which received at least 14 seats, according to the exit polls. That will give the party a strong voice in determining the makeup of the next government.
Lieberman, the party leader, has stoked controversy by proposing that Israel's Arab minority pledge loyalty to the country or be stripped of citizenship.
"It is up to Lieberman who will form the next coalition," said Menachem Hofnung, a professor of political science at Hebrew University. "Lieberman has emerged as the kingmaker. He is the winner of these elections and it depends on who he sides with over the next few weeks as to who will be prime minister."
In fourth place was the centrist Labor Party, a poor showing for the party that led Israel for decades.