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Netanyahu leads but without a clear majority in Israeli election

The election is a highly charged referendum on Israel’s controversial and longest-serving premier.

Early exit polls Tuesday showed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party in the lead but with no clear winner as the nation headed to the polls in its fourth parliamentary election in two years.

Polls forecast a tight race, with Likud predicted to win the most seats in the 120-seat parliament, known as the Knesset. But it remains unclear if he will be able to form a majority coalition.

No single party list of candidates has been able to form a governing majority in Israel’s history. The party that can cobble together a majority coalition — 61 seats — gets to form the next government.

The exit polls showed Netanyahu and his allies with 54 seats in the Knesset.

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While Israelis vote for parties and not politicians, the election has again become a highly charged referendum on Netanyahu, the country's longest-serving prime minister.

Ahead of the vote, Netanyahu portrayed himself as a global statesman best able to navigate the complex diplomatic and security challenges that face the world’s only Jewish state. He has pointed to Israel’s agreements to normalize ties with four Arab states last year as evidence of his diplomatic know-how.

Image: An Israeli Arab woman votes
An Israeli Arab woman votes for Israel's parliamentary election at a polling station in Maghar, Israel, on Tuesday.Mahmoud Illean / AP

He has also promoted Israel’s world-beating vaccine rollout, which has allowed it to reopen most of its economy after months of government-imposed lockdowns.

However, critics have accused him of mismanaging the coronavirus for much of the past year, and point to the fact that Israel has recorded more than 6,000 Covid-19 deaths. They also point to his indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in 2019.

The allegations against Netanyahu include receiving lavish gifts from wealthy friends and making regulatory decisions in exchange for positive coverage on an Israeli news site. He is the first sitting prime minister to be charged with a crime, but denies all wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a “witch hunt.”

He has not been able to leverage his close relationship with former President Donald Trump, who became a feature of Netanyahu's recent campaigns. President Joe Biden has stayed out of the Israeli election and Netanyahu has barely mentioned him.

Netanyahu is also being squeezed by a number of onetime allies who have formed their own parties.

Polling behind Likud is the Yesh Atid party, whose leader, Yair Lapid, has emerged as the main centrist challenger to Netanyahu.

Voters Tuesday are required to wear masks and special voting stations have been established for those in quarantine.

Image: Israel election
An Israeli, clad in a protection gear against the spread of Covid-19, prepares ballots at a drive-through polling station especially set up for quarantined voters in Jerusalem on Tuesday. Emmanuel Dunand / AFP - Getty Images

Israel’s fourth election in two years comes after internal disagreements paralyzed the emergency government formed between Netanyahu and his then-chief political rival, Benny Gantz. The vote was triggered by the government’s failure to agree on a budget in December.

It follows three inconclusive Israeli elections held since April 2019. The Israel Democracy Institute published a survey earlier this month that found that less than a third of interviewees thought the upcoming election would resolve the political stalemate in Israel.

The Central Election Committee said final results were not expected to be clarified until Friday.

Negotiations to form a majority coalition could take a lot longer, and if the political deadlock is not broken, another election could be in the cards.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.