Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud-Beytenu list won 31 Knesset mandates, followed by Yesh Atid at 19, exit polls broadcast by Israel's three leading television stations showed on Tuesday night.
Final results will be published by the Central Elections Commission on Wednesday.
At 22:17, Netanyahu declared victory with a message on his Facebook page. "I wish to thank the millions of the citizens of Israel carried out their democratic right today. According to the exit polls it is clear that the citizens of Israel have decided that they want me to continue in the position of prime minister of Israel and that I form as wide a coalition government as possible. The early results are a big opportunity for many changes that will favor all of Israel's citizens. The elections are behind us and many complex challenges lie ahead. Starting tonight I will start the efforts to form a government that will be as wide as possible," Netanyahu wrote.
The results, according to the television channels:
Yesh Atid 19
Habayit Yehudi 12
Yesh Atid 18
Habayit Yehudi 12
Yesh Atid 18
Habayit Yehudi 12
According to the Channel 2 exit polls, which are unofficial, the left wing bloc stands at 59 and the right wing bloc at 61. Channels 10 and 1 showed 58 to 62 in the blocs. Arab parties, which are counted amongst the left wing bloc, garnered some 24 seats in the 120 member Knesset.
Likud MK Tzahi Hanegbi said the country had given the Likud, under Netanyahu, a renewed mandate to lead the nation. Hanegbi added that there had been a significant change in the electoral map. Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar from the Likud said that Netanyahu would once again be prime minister, and that he would want to govern with as wide a coalition as possible. "The nationalist camp has won the election. Benjamin Netanyahu will be the next prime minister of Israel. He will lead the country in the coming years too. There will still be attempts by people on the left to block Netanyahu from forming a government. But we will now work to build a government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu," Sa'ar, who is the Likud's campaign chairman, said after the exit polls were announced.
Voter turnout was especially high as Israelis took full advantage of sunny and warm weather, as well as a public holiday, to exercise their democratic rights. According to the Central Elections Commission, some seventy percent of eligible Israeli voters cast their ballots, the highest voter turnout since the elections of 1999.
Yesh Atid, a new center-left party led by former television journalist Yair Lapid, was the surprise of the elections, garnering 19 mandates. In the run-up to the elections, Lapid would not commit to not join a Netanyahu government, as Labor leader Shelly Yechimovich had done.
Likud-Beytenu's poor performance seemed to be a result of a migration of voters to Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi, as well as a general sense amongst traditional Likud voters that since Netanyahu was polled to win anyway, they could vote for other parties. As separate parties, Likud and Yisrael Beytenu had 42 Knesset seats between them. The exit poll results show a ten seat drop.
Just several hours before polls closed at 22:00 Netanyahu pleaded with followers of his Facebook page to go out and vote. "The Likud's rule is in danger. I implore you to drop everything you are doing now and go vote for the Likud. It is very important for the future wellbeing of Israel," Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page.
Netanyahu's message was a sign that the Likud was worried about the high voter turnout in areas associated with center and left wing voters. Earlier in the day, Likud officials sent out messages to their voter base to go out and vote. Education Minister and Likud-Beytenu campaign manager Gideon Sa'ar said he "was worried about the high voter turnout amongst left-wing voters."
9,582 polling booths opened at 7 am in more than 1,100 different cities and towns across Israel
The election for the 19th Knesset got underway on Tuesday when polls opened at 07:00.
Netanyahu arrived at the Paula Ben-Gurion Elementary School in Jerusalem shortly after voting began Tuesday accompanied by his wife Sara and their two sons Avner and Yair. Netanyahu held an impromptu press conference at the school, holding his party's voting slip for the cameras before he tucked it into an envelope and cast his ballot. Netanyahu said this was the first time his whole family had voted together. "I have always said the Likud-Beytenu [the joint Likud and Yisrael Beytenu Knesset candidate list] represents the entire nation, and in this case, the whole family," Netanyahu said. " Anyone who wants Israel to succeed should vote for one big party."
"Today is a cloudy day, but not rainy," he said. "Nevertheless we want a downpour of Likud-Yisrael Beytenu voting slips — it is good for the State of Israel."
The Netanyahus then visited the Western Wall and, true to Jewish tradition, left notes containing their wishes between the cracks of the ancient wall. According to a Likud spokesperson, Netanyahu wrote "With the help of God, for the future of Israel."
"I keep coming back to the Western Wall, to touch the bedrock of our existence, and I pray for the future of Israel and the future of our people," Netanyahu told reporters at the site.
MK Avigdor Lieberman, no. 2 on the Likud-Beytenu list, voted in his hometown of Nokdim. Shortly after voting he said the most important event on the eve of the elections was Beitar Jerusalem football club's victory over Hapoel Tel Aviv on Monday. "Just like the Beitarniks won decisively on Monday, so too will the national camp [shorthand for the right-wing parties] and Likud-Beytenu win in the elections," he quipped.
Habayit Heyehudi leader Naftali Bennett voted in his hometown of Raanana at around 8 a.m. with his wife Gilat. Upbeat, he told reporters that "when I see everyone joining Habayit Hayehudi I know that something new is about to begin among the Jewish people."
He expressed hope that the party "gets the opportunity to do something good here." Bennett left for the southern city of Beersheba immediately after voting, in what was to be a very intense day full of campaign stops, including Lod and Petach Tikva. He is expected to arrive at his party's headquarters when the results come in on Tuesday night.
Labor Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich was seen taking her dog out for a walk before voting near her home in Tel Aviv and was to later join party activists in the Yarkon Park in northern Tel Aviv for a campaign event.
Yair Lapid, who heads Yesh Atid (There is a Future), began his day with a Karate training session, sticking to his routine schedule. After voting in an elementary school in Ramat Aviv Gimmel in northern Tel Aviv he shared some laughs with the press, saying "It feels rather strange to vote for yourself; but it is exciting and joyful."
Hatnuah (The Movement) Chairwoman Tzipi Livni made one last effort to appeal to Israelis who were concerned over the fate of the peace process on Tuesday, posting on her Facebook profile the following statement: "Today we are going to decide on tomorrow; I believe that in the voting booth, you will be thinking, like all of us, about the home that our parents built, a home that we want to pass on to our children once we are gone. At this moment of truth, I ask for your trust. Together we will have the strength to stand resolute against the radical front that has taken over Israel and to fight for a peace agreement, which is an integral part of the Zionist dream of a safe Jewish democracy in the Land of Israel."
Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, whose once-dominant party is now fighting for its political survival, urged voters to think about Israel's well-being and touted his record as a former IDF chief. "Anyone who has the security of the State of Israel on one's mind and believes in sound judgement and experience should vote Kadima," Mofaz wrote on his Facebook page. "The Left lacks experience and the Right is irresponsible," he stressed. He predicted that Kadima will turn out to be the "surprise of this election."
President Shimon Peres, who voted at a Jerusalem high school Tuesday morning, said all Israelis should participate in the elections. "Israelis were given a day off (for voting), and it represents an opportunity that encapsulates liberty — the right to vote in a free, democratic and beautiful country," he said.
"This is a great thing. Usually the people present demands to their elected officials, now the state has a request that is directed at the people — come out and vote," he pleaded.
Officials at the President's Residence took pains to note that Peres will deal with coalition talks and task a candidate with the job of forming a coalition only after the Central Elections Committee certifies the final results, eight days after the election. In accordance with Israeli law, the president will invite party representatives next week to have them make their case on who should be prime minister. He will then have to select the MK who has the best chance of forging an alliance that comprises a majority of Knesset members. The would-be premier would then have several weeks to negotiate the terms of his coalition and swear in his government. The conventional wisdom is that Netanyahu will get the nod from the president, owing to the overall strength of the Right and the religious parties' tendency to favor more hardline governments.