Initial partial results showed challenger Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party tied with Netanyahu’s Likud.
While the results do not guarantee that Gantz will be the next prime minister, they signaled that Netanyahu, who has led the country for over 10 years, could have trouble holding on to the job.
Addressing his supporters early Wednesday, Netanyahu refused to concede defeat and vowed to work to form a new government that excludes Arab parties.
His campaign focused heavily on attacking and questioning the loyalty of the country’s Arab minority — a strategy that drew accusations of racism and incitement from Arab leaders.
“In the coming days we will convene negotiations to assemble a strong Zionist government and to prevent a dangerous anti-Zionist government,” he said. He claimed that Arab parties “negate the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” and “glorify bloodthirsty murderers.”
Final results are expected Wednesday and could still swing in Netanyahu’s favor.
According to the partial results, the parties of Gantz and Netanyahu received 32 seats each in the 120-member parliament. Likud with its natural allies of religious and ultra-nationalist parties mustered 56 seats — or five short of the needed majority.
This means both Likud and Blue and White will have difficulty setting up a governing coalition without the support of Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party.
That put Liberman, a former protege of Netanyahu’s who has become one of the prime minister’s fiercest rivals, in the position of kingmaker.
Arab parties, which have never before sat in an Israeli government, also finished strong, and exit polls predicted they would form the third-largest party in parliament.
Addressing his supporters late Tuesday, a jubilant Liberman said he saw only “one option”: a broad, secular coalition with both Blue and White and Likud.
“We’ve always said that a unity government is only possible in emergency situations" Liberman said and added "I tell every citizen today watching us on television: the situation, both security-wise and economically, are emergency situations,”concluding. “The country, therefore, requires a broad government.”
Early Wednesday, Gantz told a cheering rally of supporters that while it was too soon to declare victory, he had begun speaking to potential partners and hoped to form a unity government.
“Starting tonight we will work to form a broad unity government that will express the will of the people,” he said.
Attention will now focus on President, Reuven Rivlin, who is to choose the candidate he believes has the best chance of forming a stable coalition. Rivlin is to consult with all parties in the coming days before making his decision.
After that, the prime minister designate would have up to six weeks to form a coalition. If that fails, Rivlin could give another candidate for prime minister 28 days to form a coalition.
And if that doesn’t work, new elections would be triggered yet again. Rivlin has said he will do everything possible to avoid such a scenario.