(Corrects number of seats won by Arab Islamist party in paragraph 20)
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s prospects for another term looked uncertain on Wednesday after partial results from Israel’s fourth national election in two years projected no clear path to victory.
The right-wing bloc led by Netanyahu’s Likud party had a slight edge but was in a tight race with a grouping of centre, left and right-wing parties looking to unseat him.
WHO ARE THE MAIN PLAYERS?
NETANYAHU, 71, campaigned on Israel’s world-beating COVID-19 vaccine rollout, but such is the polarisation in Israeli politics that even this could not break the stalemate.
Critics accuse him of mismanaging pandemic lockdowns that have hit Israel’s economy hard and also point to corruption allegations. He denies any wrongdoing.
His party looks set to lose around six seats – falling to around 30 in Israel’s 120-seat parliament – making him more reliant on right-wing rivals.
They will demand concessions during coalition horse-trading, and will ultimately be looking to replace him as standard-bearer of the right.
YAIR LAPID, 57, a former finance minister and TV host who leads the centre-left party Yesh Atid – “There is a Future”.
His party is predicted to come second, with around 18 seats.
Lapid campaigned to “bring sanity” back to Israel with clean government and moderate leadership.
But he faces an even harder task – uniting disparate parties from across the political spectrum. They all want to see Netanyahu removed, but are not obvious bedfellows.
NAFTALI BENNETT, 48, a former Netanyahu aide, defence minister and high-tech millionaire who heads the ultra-hawkish Yamina party and is vying to be the next leader of the Israeli right.
Though his party is predicted to grow slightly to seven seats, Bennett has positioned himself as a king-maker, refusing to commit to Netanyahu or against him.
GIDEON SAAR, 54, a former cabinet minister who quit Likud to set up the New Hope party, vowing to end Netanyahu’s reign.
Like Likud his party opposes Palestinian statehood. Saar’s campaign centred on clean government and jump-starting the economy but is expected to land only six seats.
He could help unite factions from left and right. But Netanyahu will probably urge disappointed New Hope members to defect back ‘home’ to Likud.
BEZALEL SMOTRICH, 41, heads the far-right Religious Zionism party, which is projected to win around six seats.
It includes Itamar Ben-Gvir, a former activist with the now-outlawed Kach movement, which advocated that Israel expel Arabs. It also includes a member of the Noam movement, which opposes LGBT rights and recognition of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel.
The party includes hardline Jewish settlers among its base, and rejects any territorial concessions to the Palestinians.
MANSOUR ABBAS, 46, an Islamist forecast to win five seats, has shaken the Arab political establishment by floating the idea of working with Netanyahu’s right-wing government to address violence and other social issues in Arab towns.
No Arab party has ever joined a ruling Israeli coalition, and Abbas’s proposal is rejected by most Arab voters, many of whom identify with their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza.
Although Netanyahu dropped past scaremongering about Arabs to reach out to them in this election, it remains an unlikely alliance of opposites.
The divisions within Israel’s 21% Arab minority look set to push overall Arab representation down.
WHEN ARE THE RESULTS?
The final tally is expected by Friday. A party must pass a threshold of 3.25% of the votes to enter parliament. Around 12 parties have a realistic chance of qualifying.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER THE RESULTS ARE PUBLISHED?
Israel’s president will consult with party leaders about who they want as prime minister. By April 7 he is expected to choose the legislator with the best chance.
That nominee has up to 42 days to form a government. Then the president asks others to try.
If nobody succeeds, Israel goes to a fifth election.
(This story corrects number of seats won by Arab Islamist party in paragraph 20)
(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub, Ari Rabinovitch and Dan Williams. Editing by Stephen Farrell, Michael Perry and Gareth Jones)