With 99 percent of votes counted in the elections for the 19th Knesset, the all-important calculus of political blocs in the 120-seat Knesset is tied with 60 each for the Left (including the Arab parties) and for the Right (including the ultra-Orthodox parties).
At 6 a.m., the Central Elections Committee released its results after counting 3,616,947 votes. While the final results could change the overall picture by one or two seats, the joint Likud-Yisrael Beytenu list headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads with 31 seats, followed by the surprise of these elections, the Yesh Atid party led by Yair Lapid, with 19 seats. Labor, led by Shelly Yachimovich, came in third with 15 seats — a number considered a great disappointment for the social democratic party. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party received 11, and Habayit Hayehudi, led by Naftali Bennett, garnered 11 too. The Ashkenazi haredi party United Torah Judaism received 7 seats, followed by Hatnuah, led by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, with 6 seats. Left-wing Meretz, under Zahava Gal-On, doubled its electoral strength to win 6 seats. Arab-Israeli voter turnout was low, once again, with Ra'am-Ta'al leading the pack with 5 seats; Hadash received 4, and the National Democratic Assembly received 3. Kadima, which was the largest party in the 2009 elections with 28 seats, crashed to 2 seats, and may still not pass the electoral threshold once all the votes are tallied. Far-right Strong Israel did not pass the threshold.
Soldiers' votes, which will be tallied on Thursday, could still determine the makeup of the political blocs. Tuesday's election saw a voter turnout of 66.6 percent, higher than in the last two elections.
Just 15 minutes after polls closed at 10 p.m., 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.
Speaking to party supporters after midnight, Netanyahu said the election results provided an opportunity to carry out reforms that the citizens of Israel were demanding and that would serve the entire country. Netanyahu said his government would be based on five central pillars: "Strengthening Israel's security in the face of the challenges ahead and especially Iran; fiscal responsibility in the global economic downturn; diplomatic responsibility in our constant striving for a true peace; increasing equality in the national burden, and a reduction in the cost of living with a special emphasis on the price of housing."
Netanyahu said he would start immediately to form "as wide a coalition as possible" and had already called Lapid, Bennett and Shas. In his speech, former foreign minister and No. 2 on the Likud-Beytenu list Avigor Lieberman said the campaign's two main goals had been achieved: to secure the continuation of the nationalist camp’s leadership of Israel, and to make sure that Netanyahu returned for another term.
Former Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi said the country had given Likud, under Netanyahu, a renewed mandate to lead the nation. Hanegbi said there had been a significant change in the electoral map.
Education Minister and Likud party campaign manager Gideon Sa'ar 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 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 said after the exit polls were announced.
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 stay out of a Netanyahu government, as Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich did. Yesh Atid emerged as the second-largest party in Israel's parliament after the prime minister's bloc, giving the 49-year-old former journalist unexpectedly strong leverage in upcoming coalition negotiations. Lapid told cheering supporters after Tuesday's election that he wanted a broad alliance of moderates, suggesting he would try to prod Netanyahu to abandon his traditional right-wing and ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies.
Lapid's new political leverage could produce a more moderate Israeli government, but it is not clear if that would be enough to end the paralysis in Middle East peace efforts. In an interview last week, Lapid told The Associated Press he would not be a fig leaf in an extremist government and would make firm demands for joining the coalition, including a return to peace talks.
"I think it is crucial that we take the path of being part of the Western, civilized world and the international community," he said at the time. In comments made at a closed forum in February 2012, Lapid said, “Israel is more reliant on America than most Israelis would like to admit. The last thing we need is a rift with America."
Speaking to party supporters after midnight Tuesday, Lapid said, "Israelis today said no to extremism and no to anti-democratic policies."
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 among traditional Likud voters that since Netanyahu was expected to win anyway, they could vote for other parties. As separate parties, Likud and Yisrael Beytenu had 42 Knesset seats between them. The exit polls showed a 10-seat drop for the joint list.
Several hours before the polls closed at 10 p.m., Netanyahu pleaded with followers on his Facebook page to go out and vote.
"Likud's rule is in danger. I implore you to drop everything you are doing now and go vote for Likud. It is very important for the future well-being 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. Sa'ar said he "was worried about the high voter turnout among left-wing voters."
Israeli voters do not directly elect the prime minister. The party leader who has the best chance of putting together a majority coalition is given an opportunity to do so in post-election negotiations, offering cabinet posts and policy concessions to other parties. That person has up to six weeks to form a coalition. If successful, he or she becomes prime minister. In the unlikely scenario that he or she is not successful, another party is chosen to try.
Officials at the President's Residence emphasized that President Shimon 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 .
Although the blocs appear evenly split, Netanyahu would likely get the first shot at trying to form a coalition government, because the center-left bloc draws 12 of its parliamentary seats from Arab parties that traditionally neither have been asked nor sought to join coalitions.