Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main challenger Benny Gantz emerge head-to-head after nearly over 90 percent of votes from the general election were counted, Israeli media reports.

This combination picture shows Benny Gantz (R), leader and candidate of the Israel Resilience Party, waving to supporters in Tel Aviv on September 18, 2019, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing supporters at his Likud party's electoral campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv on the same day.
This combination picture shows Benny Gantz (R), leader and candidate of the Israel Resilience Party, waving to supporters in Tel Aviv on September 18, 2019, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing supporters at his Likud party's electoral campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv on the same day. (AFP)

Israel's two main political parties were deadlocked on Wednesday after an unprecedented repeat election, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing an uphill battle to hold on to his job.

The election's seeming political kingmaker, Avigdor Lieberman, said he would insist upon a secular unity government between Netanyahu's Likud and Benny Gantz's Blue and White parties, who, based on partial results, are currently tied at 32 seats each out of the 120 in parliament.

Without Lieberman's endorsement, both parties appear to have fallen well short of securing a parliamentary majority with their prospective ideological allies.

With results still pouring in, Lieberman insisted the overall picture was unlikely to change. He also demanded a secular "liberal" government shorn of the religious and ultra-Orthodox allies the prime minister has heavily courted.

"The conclusion is clear, everything we said throughout the campaign is coming true," he said outside his home in the occupied West Bank settlement of Nokdim. "There is one and only option: a national unity government that is broad and liberal and we will not join any other option."

That could spell serious trouble for the continuation of Netanyahu's lengthy rule.

Netanyahu said early on Wednesday he was waiting for results but that he was prepared for negotiations to form a "strong Zionist government".

"In the coming days, we will enter into negotiations to establish a strong Zionist government and to prevent a dangerous anti-Zionist government," he told supporters at a post-election rally in Tel Aviv.

Corruption charges

Gantz, a former military chief, has ruled out sitting with a Netanyahu-led Likud at a time when the prime minister is expected to be indicted on corruption charges in the coming weeks. It raised the spectre of an alternate Likud candidate rising to challenge Netanyahu, though most of its senior officials have pledged to stand solidly behind their leader.

Netanyahu, the longest-serving leader in Israeli history, had desperately sought an outright majority with his hardline and ultra-Orthodox allies in hopes of passing legislation to give him immunity from his expected indictment.

Israel's attorney general has recommended charging Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three scandals pending a long-awaited hearing scheduled in the coming weeks. A formal indictment would increase the pressure on Netanyahu to step aside if he does not have immunity.

Partial results

The partial results released on Wednesday by the Central Election Commission were based on 44 percent of the vote counted. 

The three Israeli TV channels reported the same outcome, based on more than 90 percent of the vote counted, but did not explain the discrepancy with the commission's official release.

According to the partial results, Likud with its natural allies of religious and ultra-nationalist parties mustered just 56 seats – or five short of the needed majority.

Gantz's Blue and White and its centre-left allies garnered 55 seats, putting Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu and its nine seats placed in the middle as the deciding factor.

In his first comments on Wednesday morning outside his home, Gantz said he had already begun working toward forming a "unity government" but urged patience until the final results were announced.

Coalition

Focus will then shift toward Israel's President Reuven Rivlin, who is tasked with selecting the candidate he believes has the best chance of forming a stable coalition. 

Rivlin is to consult with all parties in the coming days before making his decision. Lieberman's recommendation will carry a lot of weight regarding who will be tapped as the prime minister-designate.

The candidate would then have up to six weeks to form a coalition. 

If that fails, Rivlin could give another candidate for prime minister 28 days to form a coalition. And if that doesn't work, new elections would be triggered yet again.

Rivlin has said he will do everything possible to avoid such a scenario and Lieberman has ruled it out as well.

Lieberman's primary stated goal is to push out what he sees as the excessive power of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties and have wide a coalition that can effectively tackle Israel's most pressing security and economic challenges. But Netanyahu accused his former ally of plotting to oust him from office out of personal spite.

Lieberman

Behind the two is decades of a roller-coaster relationship. 

Lieberman, once Netanyahu's chief of staff, has held a series of senior Cabinet posts and was often a staunch partner.

But he has also been a rival, critic and thorn in Netanyahu's side.

The Moldovan-born Lieberman started as a top Netanyahu aide in the 1990s before embarking on a political career of his own as a nationalist hardliner and champion of immigrants like the former Soviet Union like himself. But he resigned last year as defence minister because Netanyahu kept blocking his plans to strike hard against Gaza militants.

Lieberman passed up the chance to return to the post following April's election, refused to join Netanyahu's emerging coalition and forcing the do-over vote.

Assuming he sticks to his guns this time as well, Netanyahu could be done as Israel's prime minister.

Bibi vs Gantz

The longest-serving leader in Israeli history was seeking a fourth consecutive term in office and fifth overall. But he faced a stiff challenge from Gantz.

Throughout an abbreviated but alarmist campaign characterised by mudslinging and slogans condemned as racist, Netanyahu had tried to portray himself as a seasoned statesman who is uniquely qualified to lead the country through challenging times. 

Gantz tried to paint Netanyahu as divisive and scandal-plagued, offering himself as a calming influence and honest alternative.

After casting his ballot in Jerusalem, Netanyahu predicted the vote would be "very close." Throughout the day, he frantically begged supporters to vote.

"It's not in the bag. But if you go [vote], we will win," Netanyahu blared through a megaphone to shoppers at a Jerusalem market after stopping at other Likud strongholds in the city.

Voting in his hometown of Rosh Haayin in central Israel, Gantz urged all Israelis to hope. "We will bring hope, we will bring change, without corruption, without extremism," he said.

The election marks their second showdown of the year after drawing even in the previous one in April.

At the time, Netanyahu appeared to have won another term, with his traditional allies of nationalist and ultra-religious Jewish parties controlling a parliamentary majority.

But Lieberman, his mercurial ally-turned-rival, refused to join the new coalition, citing excessive influence it granted the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties. Without a parliamentary majority, Netanyahu dissolved parliament and called a new election.

Opinion polls have forecast similar results this time, potentially putting Lieberman once again in the role of kingmaker.

After voting, Lieberman reiterated his promise to avoid a third election and force a secular unity government between Likud and Blue and White.

The performance by the politician's Yisrael Beitenu party is just one of the factors that could determine Netanyahu's future. 

Several small parties are fighting to squeak past the minimum 3.25 percent threshold for entering parliament. The performances of these parties could make or break Netanyahu's ability to form a coalition.

Netanyahu's attacks on Arabs

He has beseeched supporters to vote to stave off the prospect of a left-wing government he says will endanger Israel's security. He also has accused his opponents of conspiring with Arab politicians to "steal" the election, a message that has drawn accusations of racism and incitement.

In his attacks on Arabs, Netanyahu has made unfounded claims of fraud in Arab voting areas and unsuccessfully pushed for legislation to place cameras in polling stations on election day.

After Netanyahu's proposal, seen as an attempt to intimidate Arab voters, was rejected, election officials barred cameras, including journalists, from all polling stations. 

In several cases, police blocked news photographers from approaching the stations.

Heavier turnout by Arab voters, many of whom stayed home in April, could hurt Netanyahu. 

After casting his ballot, the leader of the main Arab faction in parliament, Ayman Odeh, said Netanyahu was "obsessive" in his incitement toward Arabs. He said the answer was that his constituents "must be first-class voters on the way to becoming first-class citizens."

Labourers work on hanging up a Likud election campaign banner depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his party candidates in Jerusalem on March 28, 2019.
Labourers work on hanging up a Likud election campaign banner depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his party candidates in Jerusalem on March 28, 2019. (Reuters)

Facebook on Tuesday punished Netanyahu's page for the second time during the campaign, briefly suspending his automated chat function after it illegally published an opinion poll in the days before the election. By early evening, the chat page was working again. 

Last week, the account was suspended for 24 hours after a post claimed that Arabs want to "annihilate all of us".

The page and the chatbot were posting aggressively on Tuesday, with numerous videos of Netanyahu pleading with voters to turn out.

Turnout emerged as a key element for this election day, which is a national holiday aimed at encouraging participation. 

In April, turnout was about 69 percent, slightly below the 72 percent figure in a 2015 election.

As of 1300 GMT, Israel's central election committee said 44.3 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballots. It marked a slight increase over the figure at the same time in April.

Bibi's plan to annex occupied West Bank

A centrepiece of Netanyahu's eleventh-hour agenda has been the pledge to extend Israeli sovereignty over parts of the occupied West Bank and to annex all the Jewish settlements there, something Netanyahu has refrained from doing during his decade-plus in power because of the far-reaching diplomatic repercussions.

His proposal sparked a cascade of international condemnation, including from Europe and Saudi Arabia, an influential Arab country that has quiet, unofficial ties with Israel. Jordan's King Abdullah II said on Tuesday the proposed annexation would be a "disaster" for the region.

The US, however, has had a muted reaction, suggesting Netanyahu coordinated his plan with the Americans ahead of time.

Netanyahu has also been flaunting his close ties to President Donald Trump, who has promised to unveil a peace plan after the election.

Trump chimed in with his prediction, telling reporters at the White House on Monday that it "will be a very interesting outcome. It's gonna be close".

Netanyahu also claimed to have located a previously unknown Iranian nuclear weapons facility and said another war against Gaza militants is probably inevitable.

In some of his TV interviews, the typically reserved Netanyahu has raised his voice and gestured wildly as he warned of his imminent demise.

Balloting began at 0400 GMT, with exit polls expected at the end of the voting day at 1900 GMT. 

Source: TRTWorld and agencies