• Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s polarizing, right-wing prime minister, was in position to win a fourth consecutive term as leader on Wednesday, with 94 percent of the votes counted. But the race was extremely tight, and his main rival, Benny Gantz, had also claimed victory, though he later tempered expectations.
• When the ballots are fully counted, it will be up to President Reuven Rivlin to choose the party leader he believes has the best chance of assembling a parliamentary majority. Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party and Mr. Gantz’s Blue and White party were running neck and neck, but a count of the broader blocs supporting each party gave Likud a clear advantage in being able to form a governing coalition.
• Regardless of the final result, the election appeared to be a grave scare for Mr. Netanyahu, 69, who has led Israel for a decade of relative security and prosperity. More than a million Israelis voted for Blue and White, a record for a new party, placing it in the position of being the main alternative to Israel’s right wing, a spot once held by the Labor Party.
Gantz acknowledges ‘odds not in our favor’
Having claimed victory after the first wave of exit polls, only to see later results appear to hand the election to Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Gantz, 59, wrote to supporters on Wednesday morning sounding at once less bullish but still hopeful.
“Reports tell an unfinished story,” he said in a midmorning message. “Yes, odds may not seem in our favor but two things are missing: The first is certainty, as there is still a possibility of electoral shifts that will allow us to engage in various political endeavors.
“The second is, without doubt, recognition of the great hope we delivered to the Israeli people and society,” he continued. “Our voters asked for hope and we gave it to them. They wanted a different path and we carved it out for them. We will not stand down from our civil duty to represent over a million citizens who searched for an alternative.
“We have a historic achievement under our belt. We have a reason to be proud, and so we will.”
The tight nature of the race meant many Israelis went to bed on Tuesday suspended in a post-ballot twilight zone: The exit polls of the three main television channels were sufficiently disparate that both sides claimed victory.
“This is a night of tremendous victory,” Mr. Netanyahu said just after 2 a.m., at a celebration where a crowd cheered him and chanted, “Bibi, king of Israel.” “I believe that the Lord and history have given the people of Israel another opportunity, a golden opportunity to turn our country into a strong nation, among the strongest nations of the world.”
When will we get official results?
Likud and Blue and White appeared to have won at least 35 seats each in the 120-seat Parliament, and by Wednesday morning, the Central Elections Committee should release close-to-final results based on some 99 percent of the polls.
The action will then shift to the official residence of President Reuven Rivlin. He will receive a parade of party representatives over the next few days who will lobby for their choices for the next prime minister. Mr. Rivlin will then ask the candidate he thinks has the best chance of forming a government to do so.
That candidate will have 42 days to try to forge a coalition with the support of at least 61 seats in the 120-seat Parliament.
That is likely to be Mr. Netanyahu. The right-wing and religious parties were on track to win a potential majority of at least 65 seats, leaving the center-left bloc with 55.
“For the first time in Israel’s history the president’s role may be more than symbolic, and he may have to exercise judgment in choosing who will form the next government,” Yohnan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, wrote on Twitter.
That prospect has alarmed Mr. Netanyahu, whose relationship with Mr. Rivlin, a Likud veteran, has long been one of deep, mutual loathing. “Legally, Rivlin can give the task of forming the government to whoever he wants,” said Abraham Diskin, a professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In most cases, the party with the largest number of seats is given the first crack at forming a government. In 2009, Tzipi Livni’s Kadima Party won the most votes but failed to build a viable coalition. Mr. Netanyahu, whose Likud party came in second, was tasked with forming the government.
[See our guide to the Israeli elections.]
Arab vote headed for historic low
Early analysis showed a historically low turnout among Arab citizens of Israel, many of whom boycotted the vote out of disillusionment with Israeli politics and with their own politicians.
By nightfall Arab leaders were frantically trying to rally their supporters, mosques were broadcasting appeals from minaret loudspeakers, and a last-minute surge of participation seemed to materialize in some predominantly Arab towns, though that was not captured in exit polls.
Among Arab voters, where a boycott movement appeared to be having a strong effect, the haranguing was especially intense.
“The right is planning to crush the Arab parties, it wants to erase us off the political arena,” Mtanes Shehadeh, a spokesman for the struggling Ram-Balad party, wrote in a WhatsApp message to supporters. “This is Netanyahu’s dream.”
Just days ago, Mr. Netanyahu unexpectedly promised to begin extending Israeli sovereignty over the occupied West Bank if re-elected. The move would probably doom a two-state solution and appeared to be a last-ditch effort to rally his right-wing base.
Mr. Gantz’s party had come out against the idea of annexing West Bank settlements, but it had been vague about allowing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.