Voting in Israel's Election Day ended at 10pm Tuesday with three main television channel's exit polls predicting that Benjamin Netanyahu will be unable to form the next government - even if he can persuade his former ally Naftali Bennett to join his coalition.
Netanyahu's Likud appeared to be the largest party in the next Knesset by a comfortable margin with a predicted 31-32 seats. But his right-wing, religious bloc was still short of an overall majority of 61, whether or not he does scoop up seven or eight seats that Bennett's Yamina party was said to have won.
But with the anti-Netanyahu bloc comprising diverse political elements such as the predominantly Arab Joint List and the right-wing Gideon Saar, it seems unlikely that it would be able to form a majority government either - a fact that could plunge Israel into its fifth election cycle since April 2019.
Likud's biggest rival, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid's centrist Yesh Atid, pulled in just 16-18 seats, and the center-left bloc had little chance of wooing the stridently right-wing Bennett, who has repeatedly said he would not serve under Lapid.
Bennett, a former Netanyahu aide and erstwhile defense minister, has long sought to replace him at the helm, and he remained noncommittal about his coalition intentions immediately after polling stations closed.
"I will do only what is good for the State of Israel," the high-tech millionaire turned politician was quoted as saying by a spokesman.
The exit polls also showed some surprise results, with Benny Gantz's Blue & White party and the extremist Religious Zionist Party led by Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir easily making over the four-seat threshold to enter the Knesset. Both parties were on course to win seven seats, the exit polls showed.
The once-mighty Labor party also performed far better than in the March 2, 2020 elections, with each exit poll giving it an expected seven seats under new leader Merav Michaeli. The left-wing Meretz party was also predicted to win between six and seven seats, in its best showing in years.
The Arab party Raam, which split from the Joint List alliance due to the overt support for Netanyahu shown by its leader Mansour Abbas, failed to pass the threshold to enter the Knesset.
If the final results do give Netanyahu a parliamentary majority, it would pave the way for a sixth term for Israel's longest-serving prime minister and give him a boost in his current trial on corruption charges.
Full exit poll results:
KAN Likud - 30 Yesh Atid - 18 Shas - 9 Joint List - 8 Blue & White - 8 Labor - 7 Religious Zionist - 7 United Torah Judaism - 7 Yamina - 7 Yisrael Beytenu - 7 New Hope - 6 Meretz - 6 Raam - 0
Channel 12 Likud - 30 Yesh Atid - 18 Joint List - 10 Shas - 8 Yamina - 8 Blue & White - 8 Labor - 7 Religious Zionist - 7 New Hope - 6 United Torah Judaism - 6 Yisrael Beytenu - 5 Meretz - 7 Raam - 0
Channel 13 Likud - 32 Yesh Atid - 16 Blue & White - 8 Joint List - 8 Shas - 8 Yisrael Beytenu - 8 United Torah Judaism - 7 Yamina - 7 Labor - 7 Meretz - 7 Religious Zionist - 7 New Hope - 5 Raam - 0
First published: 22:12 , 03.23.21