Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gained seats in Israel’s election on Monday, according to early exit polls that put him almost within grasp of a right-wing governing coalition.
But it is unclear whether Netanyahu can clinch a parliamentary majority needed to claim victory.
Exit polls on Israel’s main TV channels projected Netanyahu’s Likud Party and its religious and nationalist allies would capture 60 seats, leaving it one seat short of the majority needed to claim victory.
Netanyahu’s Likud Party won about 37 seats, ahead of his rival Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White alliance, according to media channels.
The early results came after a hard-fought campaign for the country’s third election in less than a year.
If final results give Netanyahu a parliamentary majority, it would pave the way for a new term and give him a boost as he prepares to go on trial for corruption charges.
But if he falls short, the country’s year-long political deadlock will continue and it could potentially face a fourth consecutive election.
Israeli exit polls are often imprecise and final results could change. Official results are expected to come in throughout the night.
Polls for 6.4 million eligible voters opened at 7am (05:00 GMT) and closed at 10pm (20:00 GMT).
The 4.8 million Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza did not have voting rights.
There was little fanfare in the days leading up to the vote, with a noticeable absence of campaign posters and public rallies on the streets. With voter fatigue clearly a factor after the inconclusive polls in September and April, turnout could prove to be decisive.
Election day is a national holiday in Israel but the three-repeat vote and fears of the new coronavirus outbreak, which has so far has been kept largely in check, look to hinder turnout.
Israel set up some 15 stations to allow voting by hundreds of Israelis who have been ordered to remain in home quarantine after possible exposure to the virus.
Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from West Jerusalem, said the months-long political deadlock had left the public frustrated.
“They say that politicians needed to sort this out in the first election and not this one. However that anger hasn’t led to apathy. In fact, what we’re seeing is people coming out to vote, hoping that this one will be decisive,” Khan said.
More seats expected for Joint List
According to opinion poll, the Joint List, headed by Ayman Odeh, is expected to win a record 14-15 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, improving its September showing when it won 13 seats.
Many Palestinian citizens with Israeli citizenship said they were voting as a response to US President Donald Trump’s proposed plan for the Middle East.
Heavily weighted in favour of Israel, Trump unveiled his long-awaited plan in late January alongside Netanyahu at an event in the White House.
Israel’s Palestinian citizens have long said they are not treated as equals in Israel, facing systematic discrimination in law and policy.
Following September’s election and in a bid to remove Netanyahu, the Joint List had endorsed Gantz for prime minister after his party won the most seats, breaking a nearly 27-year-long standard of not endorsing a candidate.
However, during campaigning for the latest round of election, Gantz said he will build a coalition only with a Jewish majority, in an apparent attempt to win right-wing voters.
Many analysts have remarked that it will be difficult for the Blue and White party to form a coalition without the Joint List.
Coalitions are the norm as winning a majority of 61 seats are required to form government.
Gantz says he favours a coalition government with Likud but only if it rids itself of its longtime leader because of the corruption charges against him. Netanyahu, who still enjoys widespread support in his party, insists he must remain as prime minister in any unity deal.
Last month, Netanyahu was indicted for bribery, breach of trust and fraud in three corruption cases, which could damage his bid to stay in office. Netanyahu, who goes to trial on March 17, denies the charges.
With his career on the line, Netanyahu has campaigned furiously. He has taken a hard turn to the right in hopes of rallying his nationalist base, promising to expand and annex settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Avigdor Lieberman, who leads the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party,once again looms as a potential kingmaker, with neither Netanyahu nor Gantz able to secure a parliamentary majority without his support.
Lieberman has not committed himself to either candidate, though he has promised there will not be a fourth election.
“Even after the results come out in the next 24 hours, there’s still gonna be a lot of politicking, a lot of deal making and a lot of people being reached out to by [Gantz and Netanyahu],” Khan said.