Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a solid edge over his main rival in Israel’s third election in under a year, exit polls indicated, but it is unclear whether he can clinch the majority needed to claim victory.
Exit polls on Israel’s main TV channels showed Mr Netanyahu and his nationalist and religious allies winning 59 seats, two short of a parliamentary majority.
The centre-left opposition bloc, led by former military chief Benny Gantz, was projected to win 54 to 55 seats. Earlier projections had forecast 60 seats for Mr Netanyahu and his allies, putting him on the cusp of victory.
If the official results match the exit polls, Mr Netanyahu would receive a major boost ahead of his trial on corruption charges, set to begin on March 17.
The the longest-serving leader in Israeli history has been a caretaker prime minister for more than a year as a divided country has weathered two inconclusive votes and prolonged political paralysis.
With polls forecasting another deadlock, he had sought a late surge in support to score a parliamentary majority with other nationalist parties for a fourth consecutive term in office and fifth overall.
He faced a stiff challenge again from Mr Gantz, whose centrist Blue and White party ran on a campaign message that the prime minister is unfit to lead because of the serious charges against him.
Both parties appear unable to form a coalition with their traditional allies. With the prospect of a unity government between them seemingly off the table after a particularly nasty campaign, the vote may turn into a preamble to another election.
“I hope that today marks the start of a healing process, where we can begin living together again,” Mr Gantz had said while casting his ballot in his home town of Rosh Ha’ayin, warning voters not to “get drawn in by the lies or by the violence” after the acrimonious campaign.
There was little fanfare ahead of the vote, with a noticeable absence of campaign posters on the streets and public rallies that typically characterise the run-up to Israeli elections.
Israel had set up 15 stations to allow voting by hundreds of Israelis ordered to remain in home quarantine after possible exposure to coronavirus.
“The corona thing is completely under control. Today we’ve taken all the precautions that are necessary. People can go and vote with complete confidence,” Mr Netanyahu said after casting his ballot in Jerusalem.
He sought to portray himself as a statesman who is uniquely qualified to lead the country through challenging times.
Mr Gantz has tried to paint him as divisive and scandal-plagued, offering himself as a calming influence and an honest alternative.
He says he favours a national unity government with Likud, but only if it rids itself of its longtime leader because of the corruption charges against him.
Mr Netanyahu, who still enjoys widespread support in his party, insists he must remain prime minister in any unity deal.