Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fell short of securing a parliamentary majority with his religious and nationalist allies in a national elections, initial exit polls showed.
This has set the stage for a period of coalition negotiations that could threaten his political future and clear the way for him to be tried on corruption charges.
Initial results posted by Israel’s three major television stations showed challenger Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party tied or with a slight lead over Mr Netanyahu’s Likud.
While the results do not guarantee Mr Gantz will be the next prime minister, they signalled that Mr Netanyahu, who has led the country for more than 10 years, could have trouble holding on to the job.
Addressing his supporters early on Wednesday, Mr Netanyahu refused to concede defeat and vowed to work to form a new government that excludes Arab parties.
His campaign focused heavily on attacking and questioning the loyalty of the country’s Arab minority – a strategy that drew accusations of racism and incitement from Arab leaders.
“In the coming days we will convene negotiations to assemble a strong Zionist government and to prevent a dangerous anti-Zionist government,” he said.
He claimed Arab parties “negate the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” and “glorify bloodthirsty murderers”.
Israeli exit polls are often imprecise, and final results, expected on Wednesday, could still swing in Mr Netanyahu’s favor.
But all three stations predicted a similar outcome.
According to those polls, neither Likud nor Blue and White, with their smaller respective allies, could control a majority in the 120-seat parliament without the support of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party.
That put Mr Lieberman, a former protege of Mr Netanyahu’s who has become one of the prime minister’s fiercest rivals, in the position of kingmaker.
Arab parties, which have never before sat in an Israeli government, also finished strongly, and exit polls predicted they would form the third largest party in parliament.
Addressing his supporters on Tuesday night, a jubilant Mr Lieberman said he saw only “one option:” a broad, secular coalition with both Blue and White and Likud.
“We’ve always said that a unity government is only possible in emergency situations. And I tell you and I tell every citizen today watching us on television: the situation, both security-wise and economically, are emergency situations,” he said.
“The country, therefore, requires a broad government.”
Early on Wednesday, Mr Gantz told a cheering rally of supporters that while it was too soon to declare victory, he had begun speaking to potential partners and hoped to form a unity government.
“Starting tonight we will work to form a broad unity government that will express the will of the people,” he said.
Attention will now focus on Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, who is to choose the candidate he believes has the best chance of forming a stable coalition.
Mr Rivlin is to consult with all parties in the coming days before making his decision.
After that, the prime minister designate would have up to six weeks to form a coalition.
If that fails, Mr Rivlin could give another candidate for prime minister 28 days to form a coalition.
And if that does not work, new elections would be triggered yet again.
Mr Rivlin has said he will do everything possible to avoid such a scenario.
Mr Gantz, a former military chief who has presented himself as a unifying figure in a divided nation, has previously ruled out a partnership with Likud if Mr Netanyahu remains at the helm at a time when he is expected to be indicted on criminal charges.
But in his speech, he made no such conditions. “I intend to speak with everyone,” he said, without mentioning Mr Netanyahu.
Mr Lieberman, who leads a nationalist but secular party, is unlikely to sit with Arab parties on the left or ultra-Orthodox religious parties on the right.
Ayman Odeh, leader of the main Arab faction in parliament, said Mr Netanyahu’s repeated attacks had boosted turnout and hurt the prime minister in the end.
“There’s a heavy price to pay for incitement,” he told Channel 13 TV.
- Press Association