Deadlock once again after Israeli elections
Israelis faced further political gridlock Wednesday after their fourth general election in two years offered no clear indication on whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his rivals could form a government.
Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party won the most votes, boosting his chances of building a coalition with a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
But a rival "Anyone but Netanyahu" camp of parties was running neck-and-neck, spelling more uncertainty ahead as the official vote count continues and parties engage in intense horse-trading.
Netanyahu, 71, Israel's longest serving premier after 12 years in power, had hoped that Tuesday's election would finally allow him to unite a stable right-wing coalition behind him, after three inconclusive elections since 2019.
He campaigned on a world-leading coronavirus vaccination effort that has fully inoculated roughly half of Israel's nine million people, a pace envied by much of the world.
Netanyahu, known as Bibi, also ran on his credentials as a hawkish guarantor of Israeli security who scored the diplomatic coup of establishing relations with several Arab states late last year.
Once again, however, he was denied a clear path to victory, even though Likud scored more than 24 percent of the vote and handily beat its closest rival, the centrist Yesh Atid, which took around 14 percent.
Analysis by state broadcaster Kan showed that, with close to 90 percent of ballots counted, the combined strength of the declared pro-Netanyahu parties was 52 seats while those seeking to end his long tenure commanded 56.
This leaves both camps short of the 61 seats required to build a government and in search of more partners.
Netanyahu will likely require support from two, dramatically opposed, kingmakers: his estranged former protege Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Yamina party, which by Kan's projection won seven seats, and the leader of the conservative Islamic Raam party, Mansour Abbas.
Bennett, a multi-millionaire former high-tech entrepreneur who made a name in politics with hardline religious-nationalist rhetoric, has so far not declared which way he will jump.
Abbas would be a difficult fit in a Netanyahu-led coalition made up largely of religious Jews who broadly support settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank.
But Abbas has not ruled out joining the premier, telling Israeli radio on Wednesday that he was "prepared to engage" with either camp.
Before the election, Abbas had said he was open to working with Netanyahu if the partnership helped tackle the crime epidemic ravaging Israel's Arab citizens, who account for roughly 20 percent of the population.
Netanyahu on election night said he would welcome all comers to a future coalition.
"I will reach out to all elected officials who share our principles," he told supporters. "I will not exclude anyone."
That meant Netanyahu would now also be headhunting individual defectors from the opposing bloc, said political analyst Yaron Dekel.
The premier effectively declared that "from this night onwards I'm starting to look for deserters from the other blocs to bring them to my bloc," said Dekel.
A Netanyahu coalition would also require alignment with a new far-right extremist alliance called Religious Zionism, which is projected to win six seats.
Among its most controversial figures is Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has voiced admiration for Baruch Goldstein, the murderer of 29 Palestinian worshippers in Hebron in 1994.
The anti-Netanyahu camp, meanwhile, also remained hopeful.
Former television personality Yair Lapid, the opposition leader running Yesh Atid, insisted the anti-Netanyahu bloc had a path to a majority.
Lapid said: "we'll do everything to create a sane government in Israel."
Netanyahu is the first Israeli prime minister to be indicted in office after being formally charged last year with corruption, an allegation he denies.
Tuesday's vote was forced on Israelis after Netanyahu triggered the collapse of a unity government he created last year with former military chief Benny Gantz, his main challenger in three previous, inconclusive elections.
Gantz, currently the defence minister, is projected to win eight seats - beating expectations but still a sharp fall from a year ago when he was Netanyahu's main challenger.
Gantz said last year he only agreed to a unity government to give Israel stability amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
But now the country's political scene is, once more, in turmoil.
If Netanyahu can't reach a deal with Bennett and his opponents cannot unite, a fifth election is possible.