Jerusalem (AFP) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged victorious Tuesday after Israel's third election in a year despite a looming corruption trial, though his right-wing coalition appeared short of a majority.
Monday's election left the veteran right-winger likely to be given the first shot at forming a government and end a year of political deadlock, after similar votes in April and September 2019 proved inconclusive.
The central election committee said it had counted 90 percent of the vote, with breakdowns of the result in the media showing Netanyahu's Likud party with 36 seats in Israel's 120-member parliament.
That would mark the party's best-ever result under Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving prime minister and its first to be indicted in office.
Netanyahu's right-wing bloc, which includes ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, is projected to get 59 seats, two short of a majority.
A Likud party spokesman said they were confident of luring defectors.
The party's main challenger, the centrist Blue and White party, was projected to win 32 seats.
Counting its centre-left allies as well as the mainly Arab Joint List alliance, the anti-Netanyahu camp was expected to control 54 or 55 seats.
The secular, nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party was predicted to be kingmaker again, as was the case in both April and September.
While there remains no guarantee that Netanyahu can form a coalition, he hailed Monday's election as a "giant" success.
President Reuvin Rivlin will receive final, certified results by March 10 and then has a week to ask a candidate to form a government, his office said.
That deadline, March 17, coincides with the expected start of Netanyahu's trial after being charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Netanyahu campaigned on his tough position towards the Palestinians and on expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
He also pledged to annex the Jordan Valley, a key part of the West Bank that Palestinian see as crucial for their future state, if he won.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the exit polls showed that "settlement, annexation and apartheid had won".
- Reluctant kingmaker -
Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, said the shape of Israel's next government will "not change the nature of the conflict" between the Palestinians and the Jewish state.
Blue and White's leader, ex-military chief Benny Gantz, admitted "disappointment" with the result.
But he stressed that regardless of the final tally Netanyahu was still going on trial.
While Netanyahu will likely be tapped by Rivlin to form a government, he has no immediate path to a 61-seat majority.
After April and September votes Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman proved a reluctant kingmaker, eventually supporting neither Gantz nor Netanyahu.
Lieberman served as defence minister in a previous Netanyahu government and his support would easily put Likud over the crucial 61-seat line.
He has previously said he would only join a government of national unity -- ruling out cooperation with the ultra-Orthodox parties allied to Netanyahu and the Arab camp that backed Gantz.
Speaking Tuesday morning, Lieberman said he would work to avoid a fourth round of elections.
- US support, Palestinian outrage -
In a statement, Likud said Netanyahu had spoken to all the heads of right-wing parties and "agreed to form a strong national government for Israel as soon as possible".
Netanyahu will now begin talks with a number of opposition MPs and parties in a bid to encourage defections, though the process could take weeks.
Likud party spokesman Jonathan Urich told Israeli army radio Tuesday they had already reached out to a number of lawmakers.
"I believe that soon enough we'll find the missing seats from the other bloc," he said. "People on the other side understand it's the right thing to do."
Bolstered by US support, Netanyahu campaigned on building thousands more homes in Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territory, even though they are considered illegal by the international community.
In January, US President Donald Trump unveiled a controversial peace plan approving Israel's annexation of settlements and swathes of land in the West Bank, sparking Palestinian outrage.
The vote was held amid the coronavirus outbreak, with special polling stations set up for thousands of Israelis under quarantine who were met by election staff in full protective suits and masks.