JERUSALEM: Benjamin Netanyahu says he will continue as Prime Minister of Israel despite his rightwing party suffering a heavy blow in the polls, while the country's right and centre blocs remained locked in a dead heat with 99 per cent of the vote counted.
Israeli party leaders vote in elections
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other politicians cast their ballots in the general election.
Commentators are already predicting that any coalition Mr Netanyahu may form will be too fragile to last a full four-year term and say the country may to go to the polls again in the next 12 to 18 months.
And while domestic issues such as Israel's budget deficit and its housing affordability crisis will consume the new government, it is on the key foreign policy issues of Iran and a two-state solution with the Palestinians that Mr Netanyahu may find himself most constrained.
Recriminations in the Prime Minister's camp began before the polls had even opened, and as Israelis awoke to what could be a month of deadlock in coalition negotiations, the knives were out for Mr Netanyahu and his campaign team.
"Bibi plummets to victory" was the headline on the English-language Haaretz newspaper, using Mr Netanyahu's nickname.
"In just three months the high-riding, politically invulnerable 'King Bibi' has managed to plummet to victory in a technical triumph that has every appearance of debacle," Haaretz said.
"Netanyahu is a tragic figure," the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper declared.
The only question was whether the next elections would take place in a year or 18 months, poll analyst Rafi Smith told Israel Radio, as the vote confirmed the right and centre each had 60 seat in the 120-seat Knesset.
"It's going to be a short-lived Knesset, a pressure cooker, a national-paralysis-government."
One Likud parliamentarian told Ma'ariv: "Everyone is now trying to blame someone else from every direction possible."
Mr Netanyahu put on a brave face last night, addressing his supporters after midnight and claiming a mandate to again lead the country.
It's going to be a short-lived Knesset, a pressure cooker, a national-paralysis-government.Rafi Smith, poll analyst
"It is an opportunity to make changes that the citizens of Israel wish upon themselves and that will serve all the citizens of Israel. I intend on making those changes by forming the broadest coalition possible,"' he said.
The question now is which parties Mr Netanyahu will bring into his right-wing coalition. It appeared one of his first phone calls on election night was to the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, Yair Lapid.
The 49-year-old former television presenter, who formed his party only a year ago, has been the strongest — and most unexpected — performer of this election, surging from a lull early in the polls to win 19 seats and form the second largest party in the Knesset.
"The citizens of Israel today said no to politics of fear and hatred," Mr Lapid told his jubilant supporters on Tuesday night.
"We are facing an economic crisis that is threatening to crush the Israeli middle class; we are facing a world that is liable to ostracise us because of the deadlock in the peace process; we are facing the fear of the dissolution of society that is being caused by the issue of equal sharing of the burden."
If Mr Netanyahu chooses to form a right-centre coalition, Mr Lapid will be a key player. Mr Netanyahu may also invite the former foreign minister Tzipi Livni's Hatnua party, possibly bolstering his numbers by including the far-right Jewish Home party.
His other option is to continue with his right-wing coalition partners, and include Jewish Home, Shas and United Torah Judaism, or, in a less likely scenario, he could form a centrist secular coalition, joining forces with Mr Lapid, the Labor Party headed by another former journalist, Shelly Yachimovich, and Mrs Livni, leaving out the Jewish Home and ultra-Orthodox parties.
Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu claimed 31 seats, followed by Yesh Atid with 19, Labor with 15, the right-wing religious party Shas on 11, Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home (Habayit Hayehudi) with 11, United Torah Judaism seven, Hatnua on six, the left-wing Meretz also on six, with the three Arab parties between them likely to gather 12.
Kadima, which had the largest number of seats in the last parliament, is on the edge of the electoral threshold and may hold on to two seats.
The final count is not expected until later in the week after ballots from soldiers, hospital patients, doctors and nurses, prisoners and police officers as well as overseas votes are counted.