Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party were neck-and-neck in Israel’s general election, according to exit polls late Tuesday.
Two polls showed Blue and White with a slight lead over Likud, winning 33 seats to Likud’s 31 and 34 seats to Likud’s 33, respectively.
À third showed the centrist party tying with Likud at 32 seats each.
In a political system of proportional representation where the size of blocs is crucial, the outcome of the election remained unclear, with neither the centre-left or the right-wing and religious bloc appearing to have won a significant majority.
Israel’s next prime minister will be the candidate most likely to be able to form a coalition with enough parties for a government of at least 61 members.
The right-wing bloc including Likud, the far-right Yamina and the ultra-Orthodox parties received between 54 and 57 mandates.
Two of the polls showed the right-wing and religious bloc as being two seats larger than the centre-left bloc. A third poll showed the centre-left bloc as being four seats larger.
The centre-left bloc including Blue and White, Labour-Gesher, the Democratic Union and the Joint List of Arab parties received between 54 and 58 mandates.
The Joint List of Arab parties looked set to be the third-largest party in parliament with between 11 and 13 seats. They have never been part of a government before, but have in the past chosen to support a minority government from the outside.
The Yisrael Beitenu party, which received between eight and 10 mandates, was not included in either bloc. It was unclear whom party leader Avigdor Liberman, perceived as the kingmaker, will recommend to President Reuven Rivlin as premier.
Speaking after the exit polls Mr Liberman said: “We have only one option – a wide, right-wing liberal national unity government made up of Yisrael Beitenu, Likud and Blue and White.”
Blue and White has said it would sit with Likud only if it is not headed by Netanyahu, who faces indictment, subject to a hearing, over corruption charges.
Meanwhile, Mr Netanyahu has said he would form a right-wing and religious coalition.
This was the second election held in Israel in just over five months after Mr Netanyahu failed to form a coalition following his victory in the April election.
Mr Liberman refused to join his government over disagreements with the ultra-Orthodox parties.
After consultations with the leaders of every party that passed the threshold, Mr Rivlin will decide who to task with forming the coalition.
The president must assign the coalition-building task to a party representative within seven days of receiving the official results, and that person then has 28 days to complete the task.
The president may grant a two-week extension.
If after that no coalition deal is reached, the president will give the responsibility to another member of parliament.
A new government is expected to be formed by the end of October.