An official result was still hours, perhaps days off. But with more than 63 percent of votes counted, the Netanyahu-led right-wing bloc was, as expected, more or less even with Gantz’s center-left.
With no single-party majority in the 120-seat Knesset, there will likely be weeks of coalition talks before a new government is formed.
The ballot’s wildcard, former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, emerged as a likely kingmaker as head of the secular-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party.
Lieberman has been pushing for a unity government comprised of the biggest parties. He declined to back Netanyahu’s bid to form a narrow right-wing and religious coalition after the April election, bringing about Tuesday’s unprecedented repeat vote.
Campaigns run by Likud and Blue and White pointed to only narrow differences on many important issues: the regional struggle against Iran, the Palestinian conflict, relations with the United States and the economy.
An end to the Netanyahu era would be unlikely to bring about a significant change in policy on hotly disputed issues in the peace process with the Palestinians that collapsed five years ago.
Based on the partial vote count, Israel’s main TV stations, Channel 12 and 13, projected Likud and Blue and White would each have 32 seats. With support from smaller, like-minded parties, each was projected to command a block of about 55 or 56, short of a majority. That left Lieberman, whose party was forecast to win 9 seats. On Wednesday, he reiterated his call for a unity government but said he had not yet spoken to Gantz or Netanyahu.
“There is only one option - a national unity government, a broad, liberal government, and we will not join any other,” Lieberman told reporters.
Netanyahu, who highlighted his close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump during the campaign, said in his 3 a.m. speech at Likud election headquarters in Tel Aviv that he intended to establish a “strong Zionist government” that would reflect the views of “many of the nation’s people”.