Supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud
party celebrate after the exit polls were announced at the
party's headquarters in Tel Aviv. REUTERS/Nir Elias
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has emerged the bruised
winner of Israel's election, with his hawkish bloc unexpectedly
losing ground to resurgent centre-left challengers, exit polls
They suggested the Israeli leader's Likud party, yoked with
the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu group, would still be
the biggest bloc in the 120-member assembly with 31 seats, 11
fewer than the 42 they held in the previous parliament.
If the exit polls compiled by three Israeli television
channels prove correct, Netanyahu would be on course to
secure a third term in office, perhaps leading a hardline
coalition that would promote Jewish settlement on occupied
But his weakened showing in an election he himself called
earlier than necessary could complicate the struggle to forge
an alliance with a stable majority in parliament.
The projections showed right-wing parties with a combined
strength of 61-62 seats against 58-59 for the centre-left.
"According to the exit poll results, it is clear that
Israel's citizens have decided that they want me to continue
in the job of prime minister of Israel and to form as broad a
government as possible," Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook
But the mood was subdued at his Likud party's election
headquarters, with only a couple of hundred party activists
and supporters in a venue that could house thousands.
The 63-year-old Israeli leader promised during his election
campaign to focus on tackling Iran's nuclear ambitions if he
won, shunting Palestinian peacemaking well down the agenda
despite Western concern to keep the quest for a solution
After a lacklustre campaign, Israelis voted in droves on a
sunny winter day, registering the highest projected turnout
since 1999 when Netanyahu, serving his first term as prime
minister, was defeated by then-Labour Party leader Ehud
The strong turnout buoyed centre-left parties which had
pinned their hopes on energizing an army of undecided voters
against Netanyahu and his nationalist-religious allies.
The centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, led by
former television talk show host Yair Lapid, came second with
18 or 19 seats, exit polls showed - a stunning result for a
newcomer to politics in a field of 32 contending parties.
Lapid won support amongst middle-class, secular voters by
promising to resolve a growing housing shortage, abolish
military draft exemptions for Jewish seminary students and
seek an overhaul of the failing education system.
The once dominant Labour party led by Shelly Yachimovich was
projected to take third place with 17 seats.
A stream of opinion polls before the election had predicted
an easy win for Netanyahu. The final opinion polls on Friday
showed his Likud-Beitenu group still on top, but losing some
ground to the Jewish Home party, which opposes a Palestinian
state and advocates annexing chunks of the occupied West
The exit polls projected 12 seats for Jewish Home.
Full election results are due by Wednesday morning and
official ones will be announced on Jan. 30. After that,
President Shimon Peres is likely to ask Netanyahu, as leader
of the biggest bloc in parliament, to try to form a
The former commando has traditionally looked to religious,
conservative parties for backing and is widely expected to
seek out self-made millionaire Naftali Bennett, who heads the
Jewish Home party and stole much of the limelight during the
Political sources said before the election that Netanyahu
might approach centre-left parties in an effort to broaden
his coalition and present a more moderate face to worried
British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned Israel on
Tuesday it was losing international support, saying prospects
for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
were almost dead because of expanding Jewish settlements.
U.S.-brokered peace talks broke down in 2010 amid mutual
acrimony. Since then Israel has accelerated construction in
the West Bank and east Jerusalem - land the Palestinians want
for their future state - much to the anger of Western
Tuesday's vote is the first in Israel since Arab uprisings
swept the region two years ago, reshaping the Middle East.
Netanyahu has said the turbulence, which has brought Islamist
governments to power in several countries long ruled by
secularist autocrats, including neighbouring Egypt, shows the
importance of strengthening national security.
He views Iran's nuclear programme as a mortal threat to the
Jewish state and has vowed not to let Tehran enrich enough
uranium to make a single nuclear bomb - a threshold Israeli
experts say could arrive as early as mid-2013.
Iran denies it is planning to build the bomb, and says
Israel, widely believed to have the only nuclear arsenal in
the Middle East, is the biggest threat to the region.
The issue barely registered during the election campaign,
with a poll in Haaretz newspaper on Friday saying 47 percent
of Israelis thought social and economic issues were the most
pressing concern, against just 10 percent who cited Iran.
One of the first problems to face the next government, which
is unlikely to take power before the middle of next month at
the earliest, is the stuttering economy.
Data last week showed the budget deficit rose to 4.2 percent
of gross domestic product in 2012, double the original
estimate, meaning spending cuts and tax hikes look certain.