Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed victory in Israel’s general election on Monday, with exit polls putting the indicted premier in a strong position to form the next government.
The election, Israel’s third in less than a year, was called after inconclusive votes in April and September left the Jewish state in a political deadlock.
Surveys conducted by three Israeli networks gave Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party between 36 and 37 seats in Israel’s 120-member parliament.
That would mark a major improvement on its performance in September.
It would also be the party’s best-ever result under Netanyahu, who first served as premier from 1996-1999 and has whose current tenure began in 2009.
Likud’s main challenger, the centrist Blue and White party led by ex-military chief Benny Gantz, was estimated to take 32 or 33 seats.
Netanyahu tweeted “thank you” after the polls.
“It’s a huge victory for Israel,” he said.
The estimates give Likud and its right-wing allies, including ultra-Orthodox parties, 60 seats — one short of a majority.
In a statement, Likud said Netanyahu had spoken to all the heads of right-wing parties and “agreed to form a strong national government for Israel as soon as possible”.
Blue and White, along with its centre-left allies and the mainly Arab Joint List, were projected to have between 52 and 54 seats.
The secular, nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, which was in the position of kingmaker following the April and September votes, was forecast to win between six and eight seats.
Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman served as defence minister in a previous Netanyahu government and his support would easily put Likud over the crucial 61-seat line.
But after the September vote Lieberman said he would only join a government of national unity, ruling out cooperation with the ultra-Orthodox parties allied to Netanyahu and the Arab camp that backed Gantz.
“There is no choice but to wait for the final results and only then conduct a situation assessment,” Lieberman said after the exit polls were released.
The president of the Israeli Democracy Institute think-tank, Yohanan Plesner, said the projections showed that Netanyahu had “won a significant political mandate from the Israeli people”.
But, he added, with Netanyahu’s corruption trial due to open on March 17, the country was heading towards “unprecedented” legal uncertainty as the probable head of government will be forced to “fight to clear his name in court”.
Netanyahu, the longest-serving premier in Israeli history, was formally charged in January with bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
The premier campaigned on his tough position towards the Palestinians and on Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
In January, US President Donald Trump unveiled a controversial peace plan approving Israel’s annexation of settlements and swathes of land in the West Bank, sparking Palestinian outrage.
Bolstered by US support, Netanyahu has campaigned on building thousands more homes in Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territory, even though they are considered illegal by the international community.
Reacting to the result, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the exit polls showed that “settlement, annexation and apartheid had won”.
Gantz, a security hawk, was also supportive of the Trump plan, triggering criticism from the left that he did not offer a real alternative to Netanyahu.
The election was being held amid the coronavirus epidemic, with two new cases confirmed Monday — raising the tally in Israel to 12.
Another 5,600 Israelis are under self-quarantine, many of whom visited countries where the virus is prevalent.
At 18 special polling stations, those under quarantine met election staff in full protective suits and masks.
Voters had to wash their hands and wear gloves before casting their ballots, presenting their ID cards to election officials separated by plastic sheets.