(Reuters) - Israelis turned out to vote in large numbers on Monday to try to break the political deadlock that has seen three closely fought elections since last April.
Exit polls indicated that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud emerged as the largest single party, gaining 36 or 37 seats in the 120-seat Israeli parliament.
That reversed the outcome of the last election, in September, when Netanyahu, 70, narrowly trailed the centrist Blue and White party of his main challenger, ex-general Benny Gantz. It is projected to win around 33 seats this time around.
Yes, if the polls accurately reflect the final vote count, which will take days to finalize.
But the veteran right-winger will still need to win support from like-minded parties if he is to form a coalition government with at least 61 of parliament’s 120 seats.
That could mean weeks of horse-trading, with no guarantee that Netanyahu will succeed after he tried and failed twice last year, in April and September.
A year ago Netanyahu had a precarious one-seat majority in parliament, and called a snap election.
The immediate reason given was the vulnerability of his coalition after the resignation of Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who out-hawked the hawkish Netanyahu by accusing him of being too soft on Palestinian militants in Gaza.
But many Israelis saw it as a ploy by Netanyahu to gain a renewed public mandate to ward off prosecutors who were then in the final stages of drafting charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust against him.
Once re-elected, the theory went, Netanyahu could say an indictment was not in the national interest. He denies wrongdoing, accusing his enemies of a witch-hunt.
If that was Netanyahu’s plan, it backfired. No single party in Israel has ever won an outright majority in parliament, and Netanyahu failed to get enough seats to forge a coalition and give himself a record fifth term.
He struggled for weeks to put together a government. Then he narrowly lost a second election to Gantz in September. Neither man could put together a government. So, much to the dismay of the jaded Israeli electorate, they went to the polls for a third time, on Monday.
He goes to trial on March 17, just two weeks after the election, charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust over allegations that he granted state favors worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israeli media barons in return for gifts and favorable coverage.
Under Israeli law a sitting prime minister is under no obligation to resign during the proceedings, which could take years, including appeals.
His opponents sought to make the election a test of character, calling Netanyahu “the defendant.” That had little impact on his voter base, who have stood by their man.
There is no guarantee that his political allies will be so loyal once the trial starts, with several jostling to emerge from his shadow.
The court hearings will prompt rivals to demand that he resign, even before sentencing. A verdict is likely to be months away, and the appeals process could take years.
Netanyahu appears to have been given a boost among his right-wing supporters by the Middle East plan that U.S. President Donald Trump presented in January.
That plan, if implemented, would have the United States recognize Israeli settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where the Palestinians have long sought a state along with the coastal Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
More than 400,000 Israeli settlers now live among about 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank, with a further 200,000 settlers in East Jerusalem. Palestinians and much of the world view the settlements as illegal under international law, a position Israel and the United States dispute.
Netanyahu has publicly embraced the Trump plan, while the Palestinians reject it, accusing the White House of pro-Israeli bias.
Netanyahu has said that if re-elected he would extend Israeli sovereignty over settlements in the West Bank - a move that Palestinians decry as de facto annexation. Palestinians said the proposals would leave them with a “Swiss cheese” state.
Not necessarily. If the deadlock continues there could even be a fourth election, likely in another six months. But some Israeli politicians regard this as unacceptable. Aside from political instability, it would mean further fiscal paralysis for Israel under a continuing caretaker government.
That could lead to the defection of some former Likud partners, although there is no sign of that happening yet.
Editing by Howard Goller