Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to secure a solid parliamentary majority in Israel’s election on Tuesday.
However, a potential deal with a rival rightist could make him the eventual winner, TV exit polls showed.
Not even a campaign in which Netanyahu showcased Israel’s world-beating COVID-19 vaccination rollout could break through two years of political deadlock underscored by four elections.
Israel’s centre-left made a better showing than expected, according to the exit polls, after highlighting longstanding corruption allegations against Netanyahu and accusing him of mishandling the pandemic.
But like Netanyahu’s traditional bloc of right-wing and Jewish religious parties, it also came up short of a governing majority in the 120-member parliament.
The stalemate could herald lengthy coalition-building talks or even a fifth election.
On social media, Netanyahu, 71, claimed “a huge victory” for the right-wing and his Likud party. But the TV projections did not bear that out.
The political survival of Israel’s longest-serving leader appeared to rest with 48-year-old Naftali Bennett, a defence minister in a previous Netanyahu government and leader of the nationalist Yamina party.
A former Netanyahu aide who has long sought to replace him at the helm, Bennett remained noncommittal about his intentions immediately after polling stations closed.
“I will do only what is good for the state of Israel,” Bennett was quoted as saying by a spokesman.
Bennett, a high-tech millionaire, has said he would not serve under the centre-left group’s most likely leader, 57-year-old Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party. He also gave no firm public promise during the campaign to join up with Netanyahu, for what exit polls indicated would be only a slim majority.
After the exit polls were broadcast, Bennett said he received a telephone call from Netanyahu and told him, “we will await the final results” before deciding on his next political steps.
Netanyahu also phoned conservative political allies and urged them to join a “strong, stable right-wing government”, a spokesman said.
Netanyahu had campaigned on his leadership credentials based on a programme that has enabled nearly 50% of Israelis to receive two vaccine shots already.
But charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, which Netanyahu has denied in his ongoing trial, as well as economic strife Israelis suffered during three nationwide coronavirus lockdowns have weighed on his popularity.
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a non-partisan think tank, said the exit polls showed the country remained divided and that a fifth national ballot remained a real option.
“At the same time, if Bennett joins his coalition, Netanyahu is closer than ever to a narrow government including the most extreme elements of Israeli society,” Plesner said.
According to the exit polls, Lapid’s Yesh Atid took second place with 16-18 parliamentary seats to 31-32 for top finisher Likud.
The dominant political figure of his generation, Netanyahu has been in power continuously since 2009. But the Israeli electorate is deeply polarised, with supporters hailing him as “King Bibi” and opponents holding up placards calling him “Crime Minister”.
Israel’s swift vaccine drive allowed it to reopen much of its economy before the election, and Netanyahu had promised voters and businesses more cash stipends and millions more doses of vaccine.