TEL AVIV—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retained a lead against his rival as votes were nearly fully counted in Israel’s third parliamentary elections in a year, but he is again on track to fall short of the majority he needs to form a new ruling coalition.
With about 92% of the votes counted as of Tuesday evening, Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party appeared to have won 36 seats, according to calculations by Israeli broadcasters. Taken together with the seats secured by his coalition partners, his bloc had secured 59 seats, leaving him two shy of the 61-seat majority in the Knesset needed to form a government.
The final count is expected to be released Wednesday, and then consultations begin on who has enough of a mandate to assemble a new government. If the current results hold, Mr. Netanyahu is on track to get first bite at forming a new ruling coalition, but it remains unclear whether he will be able to succeed after twice failing after elections in April and in September last year.
Meanwhile, the Blue and White, the centrist party headed Mr. Netanyahu’s rival, Benny Gantz, had 32 seats, according to the latest count. Together with his allies in the center-left he has 39 seats and if the Arab parties support him, he would command the backing of 54 votes in the parliament.
The projections suggest the vote could produce another deadlock, prolonging nearly a year of political paralysis in the country, and raise the specter of a potential fourth election.
The size of the rival blocs ebbed and flowed after polls closed on Monday evening. Despite surveys indicating voter fatigue, the turnout was the highest of the three elections held in Israel this past year, with 71% of eligible voters casting ballots. The turnout among Arab Israeli voters was predicted to be the highest since 1999, reaching around 65%. The Joint List, a collection of Arab parties, is projected to be the third-largest voting bloc in the Knesset, with 15 seats, the most it has ever amassed.
The tight race means the final allocation of seats in the Knesset may depend on the more than 300,000 votes cast by soldiers and diplomats posted overseas, among others, who are unable to vote at their regular polling stations. Their ballots won’t be counted until at least Wednesday morning, and include some 4,000 votes cast by Israelis subject to measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Mr. Netanyahu was already reaching out to members of opposition parties on Tuesday morning to try to clinch a 61-seat majority.
“I expect that fairly shortly we’ll have the missing votes—one, two or three—from the other side,” said Jonathan Urich, an aide to the prime minister, on Israel’s Army Radio. “Talks are already being held with [parliamentarians] from several parties on the other side. They, just like Blue and White’s voters, understand that Benny Gantz essentially doesn’t have the ability to form a government.”
If Mr. Netanyahu’s bloc gains one more seat, it would increase his chances of forming a government, although he would still have to convince at least one more lawmaker to swing to his side.
He reached that point previously last April, when he secured 60 seats, just one short of the total he was seeking. He failed again in September after securing pledges of support from 55 lawmakers. Mr. Gantz was also unable to form a government after September’s election ended in deadlock, pitching Israel into its third election in less than a year, a first for the country.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will begin talks with the rival party leaders once the official vote is completed, and ask one of them to attempt to form a government. Whoever he chooses has six weeks to do so.
Avigdor Lieberman, head of the secular Yisrael Beiteinu party, could once again play the role of kingmaker with his projected haul of seven seats. In last year’s elections, his refusal to join a Netanyahu government that included the support of Israel’s two ultraorthodox parties was critical in puncturing Mr. Netanyahu’s efforts.
This time, Mr. Lieberman could join Mr. Gantz’s camp. Mr. Lieberman repeated overnight his refusal to join with Mr. Netanyahu if he tries to form a government with his religious allies.
After Monday’s election Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right wing and religious bloc won 59 seats, bringing him two seats short of a majority.
Supported Netanyahu as prime minister
in September election
If Mr. Netanyahu emerges victorious after two inconclusive election results, it would be a stunning political victory, bolstering his popular image after he became Israel’s longest-serving leader last year.
It might also boost his public standing as he fights indictments on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Mr. Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing ahead of the trial, which begins March 17. But one advocacy group, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, has already filed a legal challenge questioning his ability to form a government while under indictment. Israel’s attorney general will likely have to decide in the coming days whether Mr. Netanyahu can proceed with putting together a new government.
If he evades the legal and political obstacles before him, Mr. Netanyahu will be able to begin making good on his promise to annex territory in the West Bank, as outlined in the Trump administration’s peace plan. A joint committee of Israeli and U.S. officials has already begun meeting to agree on the exact borders permitted under the White House’s blueprint.
Israeli officials said they would aim to complete the effort before the U.S. presidential elections in November. Palestinians immediately rejected the plan, saying its terms tilted overwhelmingly toward Israel, but the plan allows Israel to go ahead regardless.
—Dov Lieber contributed to this article.
Write to Felicia Schwartz at [email protected]
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