JERUSALEM – Israel's election has suddenly become too close to call, though hard-liners will have a clear edge in the horse trading that is sure to follow Tuesday's vote.
Whoever emerges victorious will likely have little to celebrate, with polls pointing toward a fractious coalition government and a period of political paralysis. That could complicate international efforts to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and pose big challenges to the new U.S. president, who has made Mideast peace a top priority.
The race pits former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposes giving up land in the name of peace, against Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a centrist who hopes to become the country's first female leader in nearly 40 years.
For months, opinion polls have predicted a decisive victory by Netanyahu's Likud Party. But new polls released over the weekend showed Livni's Kadima Party closing the gap. Neither, however, is expected to get more than 30 seats in the 120-seat parliament, meaning the winner will have to form a coalition with smaller parties.
Netanyahu seems to be in a far better position to lead the country, since his natural allies in the nationalist right wing of Israeli politics are all polling well. In particular, Netanyahu's former protege, Avigdor Lieberman, appears poised to make huge gains on a platform that calls for Israeli Arabs to swear loyalty to the state or lose citizenship.
While Livni could still eke out a victory, it appears mathematically impossible for her to form a coalition without bringing in Lieberman or some other hardline party. That would hinder her ability to pursue a peace agreement with the Palestinians, as she has promised to do.
"It seems it is going to be decisive, the right wing is probably going to have the majority," said Avraham Diskin, a Hebrew University political scientist who is the chief statistician for Israel's Central Election Commission.
The strength of the Israeli right is a reflection of the times. Israel recently wrapped up a three-week war against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip after years of rocket attacks by the Islamic militant group. The campaign came just over two years after a war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
These conflicts have reinforced a sense that the Jewish state is surrounded by enemies and left a public highly skeptical about the prospects for peace. Throughout the campaign, Livni and Netanyahu have tried to outdo each other with their threats against Hamas.
"In the end, there won't be a choice but to topple the Hamas government in Gaza," Netanyahu told the French-language Guysen TV on Monday. "That's clear. The job wasn't completed in the latest operation and we will have to compete it later."
Netanyahu has tried to capitalize on the nation's mood by criticizing the current peace efforts with Hamas' rival, the moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank.
Livni, who has been the government's chief negotiator, wants to continue the talks, which would require a large West Bank withdrawal as part of an agreement. She has repeatedly urged voters to choose "hope" over "fear."
Netanyahu says any land handed to the Palestinians will be used to launch attacks against Israel. He points to the experience of Gaza, which was overrun by Hamas after Israel unilaterally withdrew from the area.
Instead, Netanyahu says peace talks should be limited to building the Palestinian economy — a position rejected out of hand by the Palestinians and unlikely to win favor with Obama.
"We will not deal with any Israeli government that isn't fully committed to the peace process and the two-state solution," said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Netanyahu also advocates a hard line against Iran, citing its support for Hamas and it suspect nuclear program.
Netanyahu has vowed not to allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons, though he stops short of saying how he would achieve that. Of the main candidates, Netanyahu seems the most likely to carry out a military strike on Iran. That could also put him at odds with Obama, who favors talking to Tehran.
Although Netanyahu has talked of forming a broadbased government, he has taken great pains to stress his hardline credentials in the closing days of the campaign — a direct result of Lieberman's growing popularity.
Over the weekend, he visited a West Bank settlement overlooking Israel's international airport and vowed never to withdraw from the area. On Sunday, he traveled to the Golan Heights and declared he would never return the strategic plateau to Syria.
Netanyahu has been careful not to openly criticize Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beitenu Party has catapulted past the venerable Labor Party into third place in the polls.
While it is unlikely that Lieberman could carry out his pledge to strip disloyal Arabs of their citizenship, a strong showing in the election could give him a large voice in foreign policy. His penchant for stirring up controversy — Lieberman has called for bombing Iran and said Egypt's president could "go to hell" — could strain Israel's relations with the international community.
Lieberman's rise in the polls has dominated what otherwise has been a dull campaign.
The public seems to be weary from the recent Gaza fighting as well as a notoriously unstable political system that has yielded five elections in the past decade. Perceptions that none of the leading candidates are particularly inspiring has only added to the malaise.
Polls are notoriously inaccurate in Israel. This time the pollsters' task is even more difficult, because turnout is expected to be low and a plethora of small parties could upset the whole equation. An estimated 15 to 20 percent of voters remain undecided.
"The reason no one knows who they are voting for is because they don't believe in anyone," said Bella Gabyb, 80, a lifelong resident of Jerusalem. "I will go, but I don't know for whom I want to vote. I will decide tomorrow."