(Reuters) - Israelis turned out to vote in large numbers to try to break the political deadlock that has seen three closely fought elections since last April.
Exit polls after Monday’s vote indicated that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud emerged as the largest single party. With 90% of the votes counted it was set to gain 36 seats in the 120-seat Israeli parliament.
That is four seats more than last election when Netanyahu, 70, narrowly trailed the centrist Blue and White party of his main challenger, ex-general Benny Gantz. But it is only slightly ahead of where Netanyahu was last April.
Gantz’s Blue and White is projected to win 32 seats this time, down one. That has been widely interpreted as a defeat.
Netanyahu remains ahead of the pack. But the veteran right-winger will still need support from like-minded parties to form a coalition government with at least 61 seats.
Weeks more horse-trading could ensue, with no guarantee Netanyahu will succeed after he tried and failed twice last year, in April and September.
Alternatively, coalition-building could be resolved quickly if the right-wing but fiercely secular Avigdor Lieberman gives up his objection to sitting with Netanyahu’s ultra-orthodox religious allies.
Netanyahu would remain the head of a caretaker government and election-weary Israelis could head back to the polls within months for a fourth election.
But all sides will be under huge public pressure to put aside their differences, form a government and avoid another national ballot.
Another election would mean continuing fiscal paralysis for Israel, which has yet to pass a 2020 budget due to the political stalemate.
He goes to trial on March 17, charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust over allegations that he granted state favours worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israeli media barons in return for gifts and favourable coverage.
Netanyahu denies all wrongdoing, accusing his enemies of a witch hunt. And under Israeli law a sitting prime minister is under no obligation to resign during the proceedings, which could take years, including appeals.
The court hearings will likely prompt rivals to demand that he resign.
He has pledged to make good on his promise to extend Israeli sovereignty - de facto annexation - over Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and its Jordan Valley under a peace plan that U.S. President Donald Trump presented in January.
That proposal, if implemented, would have the United States recognise Israeli settlements in the West Bank, where the Palestinians have long sought a state along with the coastal Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
Palestinians and much of the world view the settlements as illegal under international law, a position Israel and the United States dispute.
Palestinians have rejected the Trump plan, saying it would leave them with a “Swiss cheese” state.
Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mike Collett-White