Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led on Tuesday in a cliffhanger election in Israel, but was still short of a governing majority in a third national ballot in less than a year, exit polls showed.
On the basis of initial projections by Israel’s three main television channels, Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud party, claimed victory in Monday’s vote over his main challenger, former armed forces chief Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White.
Updated exit polls, however, showed Netanyahu two seats short of a majority in Israel’s parliament, a gap signaling possible deadlock, with actual results trickling in throughout Tuesday.
A win for Netanyahu, 70, after inconclusive ballots in April and September, would be a testimony to the political durability of Israel’s longest-serving leader, who fought the latest campaign under the shadow of a looming corruption trial.
It would also pave the way for Netanyahu to make good on his pledge to annex, after the election, Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, and the region’s Jordan Valley, under a peace plan presented by U.S. President Donald Trump.
Palestinians have rejected the proposal, saying it was killing their dream of establishing a viable state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
Israel’s three main TV channels initially projected that Likud and like-minded parties would capture 60 of parliament’s 120-seats.
In their updated exit polls, Channels 11, 12 and 13 dropped the figure to 59, potentially making Netanyahu’s coalition-building task harder.
During an acrimonious campaign that focused more on character than on policy, right-wing and religious parties had pledged to join a Likud-led government.
Netanyahu campaigned vigorously on his strongman “security-first” platform, familiar to Israeli voters over decades, and his loyal base of blue-collar voters has stood firmly behind him throughout, seemingly unfazed by his imminent trial.
“What a joyous night,” a beaming Netanyahu told a cheering crowd in a speech at Likud’s election headquarters in Tel Aviv. “This victory is especially sweet, because it is a victory against all odds … We turned lemons into lemonade.”
Gantz, in an address at his party’s election headquarters, stopped short of conceding defeat, saying the election could result in another deadlock.
“I will tell you honestly, I understand and share the feeling of disappointment and pain because it is not the result we wanted,” he said.
A Likud spokesman said he expected Netanyahu would manage to gain a governing majority and establish a coalition government by getting lawmakers from the opposing camp to cross sides. “There will be defectors,” Jonatan Urich told Channel 12 News.