Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to secure a majority in Israel’s elections, leaving his future as prime minister uncertain.
Mr Netanyahu fell short of the 61 seats needed to maintain control of the country’s 120-seat parliament, exit polls suggest.
Opposition parties managed to secure 60, but small right-wing party Yamina is forecast to win seven and has not yet declared whether it would form a coalition or not.
It is the fourth time in two years that a political vote in Israel has ended in deadlock.
If Mr Netanyahu is unable to form a government, the country faces an unprecedented fifth consecutive election later this year.
In an address to supporters at his Likud party’s headquarters in Jerusalem early on Wednesday, the leader boasted of a “great achievement” but stopped short of declaring victory.
“We must not under any circumstances drag the state of Israel to new elections, to a fifth election. We must form a stable government now, he said.
Yamina’s leader Naftali Bennett is a former Netanyahu loyalist, but in recent years has turned against him.
He shares the incumbent’s nationalist ideology and is the most likely candidate to offer to join him in forming a government. But in a speech to his supporters after the exit polls, he refused to reveal which side he would take.
“Now is the time for healing. The norms of the past will no longer be acceptable,” he said.
He promised supporters he would move the country “from leadership that is interested in itself to a professional leadership that cares”.
So far, just under 70% of the votes have been counted, with the final total not expected today due to coronavirus restrictions.
The election is being viewed as a referendum on Mr Netanyahu’s leadership after he became Israel’s longest-serving ruler in 2019.
Along with his allies, the current PM is projected to get between 53 and 54 seats, opposition parties 60 and Yamina the other seven.
Although they could achieve a majority, rival parties are unlikely to be able to form a government, as their ideological differences on Palestine and the role of religion are extremely different.
Tuesday’s election was sparked by the disintegration of an emergency government formed by Mr Netanyahu and his rival last May.
The alliance was inevitably plagued by infighting and they were forced to call a vote after failing to agree a budget in December.
Analysis: Don’t underestimate Bibi’s ability to find a route to remain in power
By Mark Stone, Middle East Correspondent in Israel
As the dust settles on yet another Israeli election much is still not known.
Can any coalition of parties manage to form a government? Would such a coalition able to govern given the chasms between different parties?
But here are two things we can say at this uncertain ‘day after’ moment:
- The Israeli public have issued a clear rejection of Benjamin Netanyahu as their leader. A clear majority of voters want ‘Bibi’, as he is known, out. Nearly 60% of Israelis voted for parties who want Netanyahu replaced. They want to see the back of the man who has been the face of Israeli politics for so many years (over two decades this time and a stint in the 1990s).
- Netanyahu earned his nickname ‘the magician’ for good reason. Don’t underestimate Bibi’s ability to find a route to remain in power. It will require a bizarre and hugely dysfunctional coalition deal. Either that or he will remain as caretaker while preparations for a fifth election are made.
Netanyahu has dominated Israeli and regional politics for so long. For his supporters he is the the ultimate defender and protector of the Jewish State. To his critics he’s a narcissistic crook who’s ongoing corruption trial is proof alone that he should not be in office.
He did not win this election but in the messy world of Israeli politics don’t count him out.
(c) Sky News 2021: Israel elections: Benjamin Netanyahu falls short of majority in exit polls