JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party emerged as the largest party in the country’s third election in under a year, exit polls indicated, but it was unclear whether the embattled Israeli leader could secure a parliamentary majority as he prepares to go on trial for corruption charges later this month.
Exit polls on Israeli TV stations appeared to show Likud and its smaller ultra-religious and nationalist allies had captured 59 seats in Monday's vote, two short of the majority required to declare victory.
His opponents were projected to get a majority of 61 seats. But with his main challenger, the centrist Blue and White party, trailing Likud by several seats and the rest of the opposition fragmented, polls were pointing to a continued paralysis of Israel's political system.
Official results slowly trickled in overnight and by early Tuesday morning about 14% of the ballots had been counted.
Addressing a raucous crowd of thousands of ecstatic supporters at 2:30 a.m., Netanyahu claimed a “giant victory.”
“This is a victory against all the odds, because we stood against powerful forces,” he said. “They already eulogized us. Our opponents said the Netanyahu era is over.”
He vowed to immediately begin work to form a new coalition and press forward with a hardline agenda that includes annexing large parts of the West Bank — a step that would destroy any remaining hopes of establishing a Palestinian state.
Despite the wild celebrations, Netanyahu could have difficulties forming a new government. After initially predicting that the prime minister was on the cusp of victory, exit polls projected a tight race that appeared to leave him short of the parliamentary majority he covets.