With nearly all the votes counted, Likud led the way with 36 seats followed by Benny Gantz's centrist Blue and White party, with 33 seats. The Joint List, an umbrella group of Arab-led parties, finished third with 15 seats, an all-time high for them.
Along with its religious and nationalist allies, Likud had the backing of 58 of the 120 incoming members in parliament — three votes short of the hoped-for majority. The final results were expected to be released later Wednesday. These were delayed because of new verification procedures and complications arising from tallying some 4,000 ballots cast by Israelis confined to home quarantine after possible exposure to the coronavirus.
Election workers were counting those ballots while wearing surgical masks and gloves. Israel has reported 15 cases of the new coronavirus, which has infected tens of thousands and killed at least 3,100 people worldwide.
Netanyahu, set to go on trial on corruption charges in two weeks, claimed victory after exit polls projected his Likud party as the largest faction in parliament in Monday's election. But late fluctuations in the official returns signaled that Israel's year of deadlock is far from over.
Although Netanyahu's opponents together are projected to hold a 62-seat majority, they are deeply divided and unlikely to cooperate. They include the predominantly Arab Joint List and the secular nationalist faction led by Avigdor Lieberman, who has ruled out any alliance with Arab politicians.
Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh has announced a series of conditions for him to back Gantz as an alternative candidate and made it clear that aligning with Lieberman was out of the question. “The Joint List won't allow the racist Avigdor Lieberman to become a minister,” he told Israel's Army Radio.
It's unclear if Netanyahu can capitalize on the divisions among his rivals. Officials close to the prime minister have already indicated they are seeking to poach defectors from the opposing camp in return for plum political postings. All of the potential defectors have denied they would make such a dramatic step.
The Blue and White leadership has meanwhile made it clear that a unity government with Netanyahu is out of the question because of the serious charges against him. The party has signaled that if it can get Netanyahu's other opponents to cooperate, it would consider promoting legislation that would prevent an indicted prime minister from forming a government. But passing such legislation, particularly in the two weeks before Israel's president taps a candidate to form a government, appeared unlikely, especially following an opinion against the idea by the Knesset's legal adviser.
Netanyahu is eager to form a government before his trial begins March 17. He has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes for his actions in a series of scandals that included accepting lavish gifts from wealthy friends, and allegedly offering favors to media moguls in exchange for positive press coverage. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing and accuses the media, police and prosecutors of orchestrating a witch-hunt aimed at ousting him against the will of the people.
Netanyahu is expected to use his position to lash out at his prosecutors and rally public support. If he forms a new government, he might also seek ways to delay or derail the proceedings. Blue and White has staked its claim as the moral alternative to Netanyahu. If neither the prime minister nor Gantz can build a majority or find a way to work together, then another election looks likely later this year.