With no clear winner, is Israel heading for unprecedented third elections?
After a caustic campaign that saw a combative Netanyahu fighting for his political survival amid recommendation to indict him on criminal charges, neither he nor main rival Benny Gantz can muster a majority and neither seems willing to blink first
While weeks of negotiations to form a coalition government lay ahead, conditions set by the parties could hobble the task within the allotted time, prompting a never-before held third election.
With nearly all votes counted Thursday, Gantz's centrist Blue and White party stood at 33 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. Netanyahu's conservative Likud stood at 31 seats. Both men claimed the right to form the next government.
"Everyone will need to get off their high horse to prevent elections for the third time," Likud MK and Netanyahu ally David Bitan told Army Radio. "Blue and White's desire for a unity government under their terms will not work."
Neither party can form a government of at least 61 seats without the support of the election's apparent kingmaker, Avigdor Liberman of the Yisrael Beytenu party.
His insistence on a secular government would force out Netanyahu's traditional allies, the country's two ultra-Orthodox parties and another nationalist-religious party.
Gantz's Blue and White have pledged not to sit in the same government as Netanyahu, as the long-serving leader is expected to face indictment in a slew of corruption scandals. The fiercely loyal Likud is unlikely to oust Netanyahu.
On Thursday, Netanyahu called on Gantz to join him and his traditional allies in a unity government.
"Throughout the campaign I called for a right-wing government, but unfortunately the election results show that's not possible," Netanyahu said in a video statement. "Therefore, there is no choice but to form a broad unity government."
"We cannot and there is no reason to go to third elections," he added.
Netanyahu repeated the plea later Thursday at a memorial for late former president Shimon Peres, where he and Gantz shook hands in their first public encounter since Tuesday's vote.
Gantz responded by saying Israel has voted for a unity government and as the leader of the largest party, he will be the one to do so.
"The people of Israel want a unity government," Gantz said in a press conference from Tel Aviv. "I intend to form a broad, liberal unity government."
Both parties were meeting with allies in the vote's aftermath and the focus will soon shift to President Reuven Rivlin, who will consult with all parties in the coming days and select the candidate who he believes has the best chance of putting together a stable coalition.
The candidate has 42 days to do so and, if he fails, the president can give another candidate 28 days to form a coalition. If that fails, the president can assign another parliament member the task of building a government, or he can call new elections, something that has never happened.
Speaking at the Peres memorial, Rivlin promised he will do everything in his power to prevent a third election.
The deadlock follows the second Israeli elections this year, which were called because Netanyahu failed to cobble together a coalition following the April vote.
Israel has endured a caustic campaign that saw a combative Netanyahu fighting for his political survival amid the recommendation by Israel's attorney general to indict him on charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud pending a hearing in early October.
Netanyahu had sought an outright majority with his allies in hopes of passing legislation to give him immunity from the expected indictment, which would otherwise increase the pressure on the prime minister to step aside.
The vote was largely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu, who this summer surpassed Israel's founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion to become the country's longest-serving leader.
During the campaign Netanyahu cast himself as a seasoned statesman who was the only candidate able to steer Israel through a sea of challenges.
Gantz, a former army chief, tried to paint Netanyahu as divisive and scandal-plagued, offering himself as a calming influence and honest alternative.
Despite the scorched earth campaign that saw Netanyahu thrash institutions like the media, the police, and the electoral committee -- and which was tinged with anti-Arab rhetoric -- the longtime leader failed to secure the resounding victory he needed to guarantee his political survival and perhaps save himself from a formal indictment.