Tel Aviv: Exit polls show Netanyahu's Likud and the centrist Blue and White in a tie. Neither party has enough seats with their allies to form a majority, raising the prospect of tough negotiations for a unity government.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to suffer a setback in national elections Tuesday, with his religious and nationalist allies failing to secure a parliamentary majority, early exit polls showed.
Exit polls from Israel's three major television stations showed the centrist Blue and White party of ex-military chief Benny Gantz is projected to win 32 to 34 seats, while Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party is on pace for between 30 and 33 seats. Another projection estimated both parties would receive 32 seats each.
Israeli exit polls are often imprecise and initial results expected on Wednesday could shift the seat count.
Either way, the results indicate that Netanyahu or Gantz will face tough and protracted negotiations to cobble together a government.
The initial results showed that neither Blue and White nor Likud would be able to form a 61-seat majority in the 120 member Knesset with the support of their allies.
Likud and its religious and nationalist allies with which it hoped to form a majority only have 55 seats, less than in April's election, according to the average of the three exit polls. Blue and White could enlist the support of 59 for a center-left government.
Lieberman as kingmaker
The results put ex-Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman in a kingmaker role. His secular, hardline Yisrael Beitenu that receives most of its support from Russian-speakers was on pace to win 9 seats, nearly double its performance in April's election.
Lieberman, a former Netanyahu protege, refused to join a Likud-led government following April's election because of what he described as excessive influence from ultra-Orthodox religious parties. His move forced Netanyahu to call new elections to avoid giving other parties a chance to form a government.
Late Tuesday, the Moldovan-born Lieberman reiterated that he sought a broad unity government with Likud and Blue and White.
"There is only one option for us," he said, adding the unity government should exclude the country's ultra-Orthodox religious parties.