The results defied forecasts that Israel's next government would veer sharply to the right at a time when the country faces mounting international isolation, growing economic problems and regional turbulence. While that opens the door to unexpected movement on peace efforts, a coalition joining parties with dramatically divergent views on peacemaking, the economy and the military draft could just as easily be headed for gridlock – and perhaps a short life.
Israeli media said that with nearly all votes counted, each bloc had 60 of parliament's 120 seats. Commentators said Netanyahu, who called early elections three months ago expecting easy victory, would be tapped to form the next government because the rival camp drew 12 of its 60 seats from Arab parties that traditionally are excluded from coalition building.
A surprising strong showing by a political newcomer, the centrist Yesh Atid, or There is a Future, party, in Tuesday's vote turned pre-election forecasts on their heads and dealt a setback to Netanyahu. Yesh Atid's leader, Yair Lapid, has said he would only join a government committed to sweeping economic changes and a serious push to resume peace talks with the Palestinians, which have languished throughout Netanyahu's four-year tenure.
The results were not official, and the final bloc breakdowns could shift before the central elections committee finishes its tally early Thursday. With the blocs so evenly divided, there remains a remote possibility that Netanyahu would not form the next government, even though both he and Lapid have called for the creation of a broad coalition.
Under Israel's parliamentary system, voters cast ballots for parties, not individual candidates. Because no party throughout Israel's 64-year history has ever won an outright majority of parliamentary seats, the country has always been governed by coalitions. Traditionally, the party that wins the largest number of seats is given the first chance to form a governing alliance in negotiations that center around promising Cabinet posts and policy concessions. If those negotiations are successful, the leader of that party becomes prime minister. If not, the task falls to a smaller faction. President Shimon Peres has until mid-February to set that process in motion, though he could begin earlier.