Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister and leader of the Kadima party, has narrowly won the closely fought election race, but the real political battle is only just beginning as negotiations get under way on forming a ruling coalition.
|Benyamin Netanyahu, the leader of Likud, could become prime minister [AFP]
Kadima won the biggest number of parliamentary seats, just one ahead of Likud, but as observers had predicted, the Israeli political scene moved to the right in this election.
Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, made the biggest gains and Likud remains hopeful of uniting the right-wing parties.
Even as projections indicated that Kadima would come out on top, Likud supporters at the party's election headquarters erupted into cheers of "Bibi! Bibi!" believing that their leader, Benyamin Netanyahu, will be the next prime minister.
Under the Israeli electoral system, once the results are in, Shimon Peres, the president, will ask the person deemed most likely to be able to cobble together a coalition, to form a government.
That could be Netanyahu.
"Lieberman, Shas and the religious parties, with them we've got the makings of a coalition," Danny Danon, a Likud Knesset candidate, told Al Jazeera.
Shas has already voiced its support for Netanyahu and Likud is selling the prospective coalition as highly representative of the country's social spectrum.
"Netanyahu recognises the need to have a wide-based coalition in order to have the whole country behind us," Gideon Ariel, a Likud central committee member, told Al Jazeera.
But Livni's camp, too, has insisted that it can put together a coalition and lead it as Israel's second female prime minister.
"She will put a government together; she will do it quickly - a national unity government with the Likud and Labor and every other party that will accept the basic principle of a change in the system of governance," Eyal Arad, Livni's campaign PR director, said on Israel's Channel 10.
A coalition deal could take weeks to hammer out.
|Exit polls indicate Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party came in third in the race [AFP]
A presidential directive gives the chosen party 28 days to form a coalition, a period which can then be extended by up to 14 days.
Throughout the elections, many Israelis complained that the main candidates were all essentially offering the same policies.
Regardless of a ruling coalition's makeup, that may well be true in terms of reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians.
"From the Israeli point of view – from Likud, but also from Kadima – there has to be a unified leadership on the Palestinian side," Michael Lawrence, an Israeli political analyst, told Al Jazeera.
"Because of the violence, because of the Gaza war - where Israel responded to Qassam rocket fire - diplomacy has been put on the back burner," he said.
In terms of peace, Livni has said she wants to continue with the struggling Annapolis talks, initiated by the former US administration under George Bush.
Netanyahu's Likud party, on the other hand, has portrayed itself as deeply concerned about Israel's security and unwilling to concede more land to the Palestinians for peace.
But this election was never really fought on the issue of peace, it was fought on the issue of security, an issue brought into sharp focus by Israel's 22-day war on Gaza, in which more than 1,300 Palestinians were killed.
"Even before the war, the elections, the candidates weren't talking about healthcare, economic or social issues. I think that's the case with Israeli elections," Gill Hoffman, the chief correspondent for the Jerusalem Post newspaper, told Al Jazeera.
"The fact is Israelis vote on war and peace."
The Arab media has generally been clear that this election was all about the Israeli right-wing, and that the real winner would be Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu.
The exit polls showed Lieberman's party with about 14 or 15 seats, which would make it the third biggest party in the Knesset and therefore kingmaker.
|Israel's right-wing bloc made the biggest gains and won the most seats [AFP]
Lieberman won fewer seats than he had expected, but he could be wooed by either side to help form a government and perhaps offered a high profile appointment.
Before the elections began on Tuesday, the headline of the Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat read: "Elections in Israel: Between Right and extreme Right."
The conflict with the Palestinians aside, Israel's new government will have several domestic issues to struggle with, including the country’s slowing economy and a chronic water shortage brought about by increasing domestic consumption and four years of relative drought.
If Lieberman does make it into a coalition he is very likely to press his controversial citizenship policy, which seeks to compel Palestinian-Israelis to swear allegiance to Israel and perform military service in return for citizenship.
But Danon told Al Jazeera that even with Lieberman in a coalition, Likud would probably steer clear of the Yisrael Beiteinu leader's controversial idea.
"I'm not sure we would implement that," he told Al Jazeera. "There are campaign slogans, and there's reality."