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The mood was subdued at Netanyahu’s Likud party election headquarters after the polls closed, with only a few hundred supporters in a venue that could house thousands.
“We anticipated we would lose some votes to Lapid, but not to this extent. This was a Yesh Atid sweep,” Likud campaign adviser Ronen Moshe told Reuters.
A prominent Likud lawmaker, Danny Danon, told CNN: “We will reach out to everybody who is willing to join our government, mainly the centre party of Yair Lapid.”
If the prime minister can tempt Lapid to join a coalition, the ultra-Orthodox religious parties who often hold the balance of power in parliament might lose some of their leverage.
After a lacklustre campaign, Israelis voted in droves on a sunny winter day, registering a turnout of 66.6 percent, the highest since 1999 when Netanyahu, serving his first term as premier, was defeated by then-Labour Party leader Ehud Barak.
The strong turnout buoyed centre-left parties which had pinned their hopes on energising an army of undecided voters against Netanyahu and his nationalist-religious allies.
Opinion polls before the election had predicted an easy win for Netanyahu, although the last ones suggested he would lose some votes to the Jewish Home party, which opposes a Palestinian state and advocates annexing chunks of the occupied West Bank.
The exit polls projected 12 seats for Jewish Home.
Full election results are due by Wednesday morning and official ones will be announced on Jan. 30. After that, President Shimon Peres is likely to ask Netanyahu, as leader of the biggest bloc in parliament, to try to form a government.
The former commando has traditionally looked to religious, conservative parties for backing and is widely expected to seek out self-made millionaire Naftali Bennett, who heads the Jewish Home party and stole much of the limelight during the campaign.
But Netanyahu might, as Danon suggested, try to include more moderate parties to assuage Western concerns about Israel’s increasingly hardline approach to the Palestinians.