REUTERS - Israel planned to announce on Thursday the final results of its gridlocked election, after tallying soldiers' votes that could tip the balance in the battle to lead the country.
More than 150,000 ballots, cast mainly in military camps, as well as in prisons and Israeli diplomatic missions, are still in play after Tuesday's national poll, which left the prospect of Israel and the Palestinians making peace as distant as ever.
Political analysts have noted a shift to the right by troops in past voting, a trend they said could help hawkish Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu in his contest for the premiership against Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of centrist Kadima.
Votes counted in civilian polling stations gave Kadima 28 seats to Likud's 27 in the 120-member parliament, a margin that could change after the remaining military ballots are added to the equation.
Netanyahu said the election of a strong rightist bloc to parliament meant he should be prime minister.
Livni cited Kadima's lead as proof the post should be hers.
It is up to President Shimon Peres, after consultations with party leaders, to decide whether to tap Netanyahu, 59, a former prime minister, or Livni, 50, Israel's chief peace negotiator with the Palestinians, to try to form a governing coalition.
If Netanyahu catches up with Livni after the remaining votes are counted, Peres would probably have no choice but to assign him the task, political commentators said.
Avigdor Lieberman's far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, which surged to third place in the ballot with a call for Israeli Arabs to undergo loyalty tests, emerged as potential kingmaker.
"I know exactly what I am going to tell the president," Lieberman said on Israel Radio, without elaborating. He held talks with Netanyahu and Livni on Wednesday.
A spokesman for the Israel Elections Committee said the final count would be announced at a news conference later on Thursday, but did not give an exact time.
The election results become official on Feb. 18 when they are published in the government gazette. Peres would then have a week to make his nomination, and the candidate he chooses, 42 days to attempt to form a government.
Netanyahu held coalition talks on Thursday with the right-wing National Union, which won four seats, and Israeli media said it seemed Peres would have no choice but to pick the Likud leader if majority rightists all backed him.
But it would be the first time in Israel's 60-year history that the winner of an election would be passed over.
Netanyahu had been cruising ahead in opinion polls until Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government launched a military offensive against Hamas and other factions in the Gaza Strip to stop them firing rockets at towns in southern Israel.
The 22-day January war cost 1,300 Palestinian lives versus 13 Israelis killed, but had massive public support. After a Jan. 18 ceasefire, the election campaign resumed as Israel pursued Egyptian-brokered talks with Hamas on a durable Gaza truce.
Livni led the main peace talks last year with the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas, and would try to revive them. Netanyahu is cooler on the key trade-offs for an accord -- ceding occupied land and curbing Jewish settlement.
Lieberman and religious parties in a coalition would be likely to set virtually impossible conditions for a peace deal.
The Palestinian Authority, which governs the occupied West Bank, said whoever ended up in charge of Israel would be obliged to continue talks and to meet international obligations.