Hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged the bruised winner of Israel’s election on Tuesday, claiming victory despite unexpected losses to resurgent centre-left challengers.
Exit polls showed the Israeli leader’s Likud party, yoked with the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu group, would still be the biggest bloc in the 120-member assembly with 31 seats, 11 fewer than the 42 they held in the previous parliament.
If the exit polls compiled by three local broadcasters prove correct - and they normally do in Israel - Netanyahu would be on course for a third term in office, perhaps leading a hardline coalition that would promote Jewish settlement on occupied land.
But his weakened showing in an election he himself called earlier than necessary could complicate the struggle to forge an alliance with a stable majority in parliament.
The 63-year-old Israeli leader promised during his election campaign to focus on tackling Iran’s nuclear ambitions if he won, shunting Palestinian peacemaking well down the agenda despite Western concern to keep the quest for a solution alive.
The projections showed right-wing parties with a combined strength of 61-62 seats against 58-59 for the centre-left.
“According to the exit poll results, it is clear that Israel’s citizens have decided that they want me to continue in the job of prime minister of Israel and to form as broad a government as possible,” Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page.
The centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, led by former television talk show host Yair Lapid, came second with 18 or 19 seats, exit polls showed - a stunning result for a newcomer to politics in a field of 32 contending parties.
Lapid won support amongst middle-class, secular voters by promising to resolve a growing housing shortage, abolish military draft exemptions for Jewish seminary students and seek an overhaul of the failing education system.
The once dominant Labour party led by Shelly Yachimovich was projected to take third place with 17 seats.