Exit polls: Netanyahu ahead in Israel vote, but short of majority. Here’s what happens now
Three projections gave Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party 36 or 37 seats in the 120-seat Israeli Parliament, and Benny Gantz's centrist Blue and White alliance between 32 and 34.
Israelis turned out to vote in large numbers on Monday to try to break the political deadlock that has seen three closely fought elections since last April. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led on Tuesday in a cliffhanger election, but was still short of a governing majority, exit polls showed.
The current status
Netanyahu has claimed victory after exit polls put him ahead of his main rival and former armed forces chief Benny Gantz. Three projections gave Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party 36 or 37 seats in the 120-seat Israeli Parliament, and Gantz's centrist Blue and White alliance between 32 and 34. However, the polls suggested Likud and its right-wing allies might fall just short of a majority in Parliament.
Israel's three main TV channels initially projected that Likud and like-minded parties would capture 60 of Parliament's 120-seats, just one short of a majority.
In updated exit polls, Channels 12 and 13 dropped the figure to 59, potentially making Netanyahu's coalition-building task harder. Actual results will be issued later on Tuesday, Reuters reported.
During an acrimonious campaign which focused more on character than on policy, right-wing and religious parties had pledged to join a Likud-led government. After the exit polls were published, Netanyahu posted on Twitter a photo of him celebrating "a great victory for Israel". Later, he wrote: "We won thanks to our belief in our path and thanks to the people of Israel."
Gantz, in a speech at his party's election headquarters, stopped short of conceding defeat, saying the election could result in another deadlock. "I will tell you honestly, I understand and share the feeling of disappointment and pain because it is not the result we wanted," he said.
In the previous election, in September, Blue and White edged past Likud, taking 33 seats to its rival's 32, but Gantz, like Netanyahu, was unable to put together a ruling coalition.
Netanyahu, 70, is Israel's longest-serving leader. He is seeking a record fifth term, having been in office from 1996 to 1999 and again from 2009. The election took place two weeks before Netanyahu is due in court to face corruption charges, which he denies. The first trial of a sitting Prime Minister in Israel is due to begin on March 17.
Netanyahu campaigned vigorously on his strongman "security-first" platform, familiar to Israeli voters over decades, and his loyal base of blue collar voters has stood firmly behind him throughout, seemingly unfazed by his imminent trial. During the campaign, Gantz termed Netanyahu "the defendant", accusing him of seeking to retain power to promote legislation that would bar authorities from putting a serving Prime Minister on trial.
Netanyahu has portrayed Gantz, 60, as a "coward", saying he would need Arab politicians' support in Parliament to form a government and that they would tie his hands.
Yisrael Beiteinu party leader Avigdor Lieberman, who was in the position of kingmaker after the last two elections, said it would keep its campaign promise not to join a coalition with religious parties.
Why so many elections?
A year ago Netanyahu had a precarious one-seat majority in Parliament, and called a snap election. The immediate reason given was the vulnerability of his coalition after the resignation of Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who out-hawked the hawkish Netanyahu by accusing him of being too soft on Palestinian militants in Gaza.
But many Israelis saw it as a ploy by Netanyahu to gain a renewed public mandate to ward off prosecutors who were then in the final stages of drafting charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust against him.
Once re-elected, the theory went, Netanyahu could say an indictment was not in the national interest.
What went wrong?
If that was Netanyahu's plan, it backfired. No single party in Israel has ever won an outright majority in Parliament, and Netanyahu failed to get enough seats to forge a coalition and give himself a record fifth term.
He struggled for weeks to put together a government. Then he narrowly lost a second election to Gantz in September. Neither man could put together a government. So, much to the dismay of the jaded Israeli electorate, they went to the polls for a third time, on Monday.
What could this mean for Palestinians?
The secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Saeb Erekat, tweeted after the exit polls were published that it was "obvious that settlement, occupation and apartheid have won the Israeli elections".
During the campaign, Netanyahu vowed to swiftly annex Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank if he won a fifth term. Such a move was made more possible after US President Donald Trump released his Middle East peace plan in January. Trump said the US would "recognise Israeli sovereignty over the territory, including parts of the West Bank.
The Palestinians, who have rejected Trump's plan as one-sided, insist that all the settlements must be removed if there is to be final peace deal.
More than 400,000 Israeli settlers now live among about 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank, with a further 200,000 settlers in East Jerusalem. Palestinians and much of the world view the settlements as illegal under international law, a position Israel and the US dispute.
Is it all over now?
Not necessarily. If the deadlock continues there could even be a fourth election, likely in another six months.