With close to 90% of votes counted, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party leads but will struggle to form government.
Near-complete results from Israel’s fourth snap election suggested yet another stalemate, with Benjamin Netanyahu scrambling to cobble together a coalition by partnering with extreme nationalist, hardline religious and far-right parties.
With close to 90% of votes counted by Wednesday evening, the prime minister’s Likud party was clearly leading with about 30 seats. The opposition head, Yair Lapid, had roughly 18.
However, Netanyahu and Lapid will each need to convince rival parties in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, to join them to form a majority government of 61 seats. That prospect appeared in doubt for both men, suggesting a potential extension of the two-year deadlock, and even an unwanted fifth election.
A full count of votes cast in Tuesday’s election could take several days to come in.
Current predictions, which could change, indicate that for Netanyahu to succeed, he may need to perform political acrobatics by bringing together hardliners on the right and the United Arab List, a small Islamist party known in Hebrew as Ra’am. In a pragmatic attempt to gain influence, the United Arab List has not ruled out joining Netanyahu, but it would certainly require serious negotiations.
Speaking in the early hours of Wednesday in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said he intended to contact parliamentarians in an attempt to build a “stable” government. “I stretch out my hand to all [members of the Knesset] who believe in this path; I don’t rule anybody out. I expect all who believe in our principles to act in a similar fashion.
Netanyahu will rely on traditional allies from ultra-Orthodox Jewish factions, such as Aryeh Deri, who said on Sunday it was not a woman’s “natural place” to be a candidate in the party he leads, Shas.
Meanwhile, the far-right former settler leader Naftali Bennett, 48, who was Netanyahu’s defence minister but has since run against him, has emerged as a potential kingmaker.
Still, it seems increasingly likely that the prime minister would need backing from a group seen as even more extreme – an alliance called Religious Zionism, which includes politicians who have expressed anti-gay views and want to expel “disloyal” Arabs from the state.
One of its most hardline candidates, Itamar Ben Gvir, until last year kept a photo in his living room of Baruch Goldstein, an American-Israeli settler who in 1994 shot dead 29 Palestinian worshippers in Hebron as they held morning prayers. Wednesday’s results showed Ben Gvir would make it into the Knesset for the first time.
In opposition, Lapid, a former TV host and finance minister, hopes his Yesh Atid party can become a significant force. Speaking in Tel Aviv, Lapid told supporters he would also attempt to form a coalition.
“[There] won’t be a government based on the votes of the racists and homophobes,” he said. “I’ve started speaking to party leaders and we’ll wait for the results but we’ll do everything to create a sane government in Israel.”
However, to lead Israel’s next administration, the self-proclaimed “centrist” will probably have to forge tricky alliances with parties from across the political spectrum, from Arab parliamentarians to far-right nationalists such as the former Netanyahu ally Avigdor Lieberman.
Lapid took the role of head of the opposition from Benny Gantz, a former army chief who fought Netanyahu during the past three elections but who lost support after he made a power-sharing deal with the prime minister that ultimately collapsed.
Perhaps fatigued after repeated rounds of voting during a protracted crisis, or possibly due to the unusually dusty, hot weather, turnout this year dropped to the lowest level in more than a decade. The Central Elections Committee said 67.2% of eligible voters cast ballots.
Yohanan Plesner, head of the Israel Democracy Institute thinktank, said the results showed voters were split “right down the middle with respect to the main question that divides Israeli politics, which is pro and against Mr Netanyahu”.
He added: “The period of uncertainty, deadlock and paralysis is expected to accompany us for the foreseeable future.”