Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party emerged as the largest party in the country’s third election in under a year, exit polls have indicated.
However it is unclear whether the embattled Israeli leader could secure a parliamentary majority as he prepares to go on trial for corruption charges later this month.
Exit polls on Israeli TV stations appeared to show Likud and its smaller ultra-religious and nationalist allies had captured 59 seats in Monday’s vote, two short of the majority required to declare victory.
His opponents were projected to get a majority of 61 seats.
But with his main challenger, the centrist Blue and White party, trailing Likud by several seats and the rest of the opposition fragmented, polls were pointing to a continued paralysis of Israel’s political system.
Official results slowly trickled in overnight and by early Tuesday morning about 14% of the ballots had been counted.
Addressing a raucous crowd of thousands of ecstatic supporters at 2.30am, Mr Netanyahu claimed a “giant victory”.
“This is a victory against all the odds, because we stood against powerful forces,” he said.
“They already eulogised us. Our opponents said the Netanyahu era is over.”
If official results match the exit polls, the prime minister, who was indicted in November on charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes, could go on trial on March 17 weakened and stuck in political gridlock.
He denies any wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a witch hunt by police, prosecutors and a hostile media.
This is a victory against all the odds, because we stood against powerful forces.Benjamin Netanyahu
If the final results hold up, the easiest way out of the impasse would be a unity government between Likud and Blue and White, which together command a solid parliamentary majority.
However Blue and White party chairman Benjamin Gantz has ruled out a partnership as long as Mr Netanyahu remains in charge.
Mr Netanyahu insists on remaining prime minister in any unity deal.
Addressing a crowd of enthusiastic supporters early on Tuesday, Mr Gantz did not concede defeat.
“This wasn’t the outcome that perhaps we would have wanted,” he said.
Nonetheless, he said the party would not compromise its principles and would wait for the final results.