Israel's election commission released the final results after counting votes by soldiers, prisoners and diplomats - about 100,000 out of a total of 3.3 million cast.

Coalition race

The results give both Livni and Netanyahu far less than the majority each would need to govern and both are fighting to line up potential coalition partners.

Israel Radio said 50 legislators have said they will recommend Netanyahu be charged with forming the next government, as opposed to only 28 - all Kadima legislators - who want Livni.

But Livni continues to try to put together a coalition and has approached Yisrael Beteinu, whose 15 seats make it a key player in any future coalition, and to two ultra-Orthodox parties who together have 16 seats.

In depth

Al Jazeera's coverage of Israel's elections

Should all three parties agree to sit with her, she will still be short of the minimum 61 seats needed to form a coalition and will have to tempt Labor, which won only 13 seats.

But the centre-left Labor may be loath to sit in the same coalition as Yisrael Beteinu, whose leader Lieberman ran an election campaign fuelled by anti-Arab rhetoric.

The bloc headed by Likud, including Lieberman's party, controls 65 seats, giving Netanyahu the edge in coalition building.

However, each party has its own agenda, and getting them all to sit around the same cabinet table is far from automatic.

Both Livni and Netanyahu are also promoting the idea of a joint "national unity" government.

Likely scenario

In one likely scenario, Netanyahu would be the prime minister, and Kadima would be allocated important government ministries like finance, defence or foreign affairs.

Together the two parties would approach a parliamentary majority, reducing the bargaining power of the smaller factions as potential coalition members.

Next Shimon Peres, the president, will consult the 12 parties to hear their recommendations about who should become prime minister. He will pick the candidate he believes has the best chance.

If more than 60 members of parliament express support for one of the candidates, Peres's choice becomes obvious - and efforts by Livni and Netanyahu now are focused on trying to win those endorsements.

The premier-designate has six weeks to form a coalition government and win approval from the new parliament.