JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday began talks with lawmakers to form a coalition government led by him after the exit polls projected majority for his Likud Party in the country's unprecedented third parliamentary elections.
According to the exit polls published shortly after the voting ended on Monday, 70-year-old Netanyahu's right-wing party will win 59 seats, just two short of the majority in the 120-member Parliament.
Israelis voted on Monday for the third time in less than a year to break the deadlock on government formation, with the country's longest serving premier Netanyahu fighting for his political survival amid indictments on graft charges.
Likud spokesman Jonathan Urich said that work has begun to convince lawmakers from the center-left bloc to defect and join a Likud-led coalition headed by Netanyahu, Ha'aretz online reported.
"This is a night of great victory," Netanyahu said in a victory speech at his party headquarters hours after exit polls were declared.
"We won against all odds. They eulogized us, but we prevailed. We made lemons into lemonade. We turned Israel into a superpower, we nurtured new connections with world leaders, including more leaders than you can even imagine in the Arab and Muslim world," he said.
"When I say that we will bring peace agreements with more Arab nations, it's not mere words. There are things in the works. This is only the tip of the iceberg," he said, highlighting his claim to lead Israel as the only leader of global stature.
With some 81 per cent of ballots tallied on Tuesday, the Likud Party has solidified its position as the single largest party with a decent lead of 36-31 over closest rival Blue and White party of former Israeli army Chief Benny Gantz.
Likud has bagged 29.64 per cent of the votes, equal to around 36 Knesset (Israeli Parliament) seats, which could represent the party's strongest showing as Israelis look to end a political deadlock that has left the country without a fully functioning government for over a year.
The Blue and White party was trailing with 25.8 per cent votes, representing some 31 seats, which is its poorest showing in the last three attempts.
Netanyahu's right-wing allies too have fared in the polls with ultra-Orthodox Shas party and United Torah Judaism at 10 and 8 seats respectively, while religious right-wing Yamina party was at six seats.
The current situation brings the right-wing bloc's tally to 60 in the house of 120, just one seat shy of a simple majority.
Israeli Arabs led Joint List was looking to win 15 seats, while the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance on the Left stood at seven seats as per the latest round of counting.
The numbers are likely to shift further as more votes are counted going by past trend.
There is also a dispute over who would tally ballots cast by voters in quarantine at special voting booths set up to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.
Former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party is likely to win 7 seats, one down from last time.
The votes of soldiers and diplomats stationed abroad will be counted at the end, which normally in the past has shown a shift of one to two seats.
The elections were largely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu who will go on trial later this month for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, but is thought to be seeking support for a legislative mechanism to grant him immunity.
"Throughout the campaign, I've spoken about everything we intend to achieve in the coming years applying sovereignty over our homeland in the Jordan valley," Netanyahu said, referring to his controversial campaign promise to annex the territory.
"Earlier, I spoke with all the right-wing faction leaders, our natural partners. After I get some sleep, we'll start forming a broad national government," he emphasised.
Expressing disappointment, but not conceding defeat, Gantz addressed his supporters in Tel Aviv asking to wait for the final results.
"I understand the feeling of disappointment," Gantz said, adding, "We will not give up on our principles and our path."
He thanked thousands of activists and supporters for their support through "the nastiest election campaign in Israel's history," asserting that "the State of Israel needs to heal, it needs unity, and reconciliation. We will continue to serve the public".
He also reminded supporters of Netanyahu's impending trial set to begin on March 17.
"Criminal proceedings can only be dealt with in the courtroom, and Netanyahu will stand trial for three severe offenses," he said.
"I'm not afraid of a long journey," he said, stressing, "I'm not afraid at all."
Gantz said that he would not sit in a government with Netanyahu because of the charges of graft against him.