Israel’s two main political parties are deadlocked after an unprecedented repeat election, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing an uphill battle to hold on to his job.
Mr Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White parties, based on partial results, are running neck-and-neck.
That means neither Likud nor Blue and White, with its smaller respective allies, could control a majority in the 120-seat parliament without the support of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party.
That puts Mr Lieberman, a former protege of Mr Netanyahu who has become one of the PM’s fiercest rivals, in the position of kingmaker.
He has said the “one and only option” on the table is a secular unity government between Likud and Blue and White – but that is one which could spell serious trouble for Mr Netanyahu’s lengthy rule.
Mr Gantz, a former military chief, has ruled out sitting with a Netanyahu-led Likud at a time when the PM is expected to be indicted on corruption charges in the coming weeks.
Mr Netanyahu desperately sought an outright majority with his hard-line and ultra-Orthodox allies in hopes of passing legislation to give him immunity from his expected indictment.
Israel’s attorney general has recommended charging Mr Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three scandals, pending a hearing scheduled next month.
A formal indictment would increase the pressure on Mr Netanyahu to step aside if he does not have immunity.
The election is the second this year after a deadlocked result in April.
Near-final results released by the Central Election Commission had Blue and White with 32 seats out of the 120 in parliament, edging past Likud, which had 31. The tally was based on a count of 63% of eligible voters. Overall turnout was 69.4%.
According to the partial results, Likud with its natural allies of religious and ultra-nationalist parties mustered 55 seats — six short of the needed majority.
Mr Gantz’s Blue and White and its centre-left allies garnered 56 seats, placing Mr Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and its nine seats in the middle as the deciding factor.
Addressing his supporters early on Wednesday, Mr Netanyahu refused to concede defeat and vowed to work to form a new government that excludes Arab parties.
His campaign focused heavily on attacking and questioning the loyalty of the country’s Arab minority – a strategy that drew accusations of racism and incitement from Arab leaders.
“In the coming days we will convene negotiations to assemble a strong Zionist government and to prevent a dangerous anti-Zionist government,” he said.
Final results are expected later on Wednesday.