Two potential prime ministers – this is what the Israeli public chose in the 2009 elections. According to a Ynet poll and exit polls commissioned by major TV stations, the 18th Knesset will not see a ruling party. Therefore, all options are open. Indeed, Tzipi Livni's Kadima edged Netanyahu's Likud, yet the rightist bloc won a clear majority.
A total of 63-65 mandates, according to the various exit polls, were given to the rightist and religious parties, compared to 50-52 granted to the center-Left camp (not including Balad and United Arab List – Ta'al, which on the eve of the elections declared they will not endorse the parties that backed the call to disqualify them.)
Tzipi Livni's options are fairly limited. Tuesday night she already pledged to approach Likud and Labor and offer both of them to join her coalition. Later, she will attempt to also bring Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas into her government, while at the same time engaging in dialogue with Meretz – which won't agree to sit in the same government with Yisrael Beiteinu.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu is also stuck, yet it appears his options are somewhat more diverse: He pledged to approach Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu before he talks to any other party. These two parties would boost his coalition by 25 mandates, yet this isn't enough. He will have to – and he declared that he wants to – bring either Kadima or Labor into his government. Another possibility for him is to form a rightist-religious government with the Jewish Home and National Union, and without Labor and Kadima.
One should not underestimate the decision faced by Ehud Barak. More and more senior Labor officials are demanding that he head to the opposition instead of joining the Netanyahu or Livni government as a fifth wheel – especially in Lieberman's presence. In the face of its slim number of mandates, Labor would not be able to offer substantive political support for the new coalition.
One of the possibilities being discussed within the political establishment is a repeat of the 1984 scenario – a rotation between the two large parties. Back then it was Peres and Shamir who traded places mid-way through their term in office. This was the only Israeli government to almost complete its four-year tenure.
Netanyahu does not like the idea, and neither does Livni, yet it is possible that for the sake of stability, and in the face of the ambiguous statement made by Israeli voters, there will be no other choice.