JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party held a lead in Israel’s fourth election in two years, exit polls projected Tuesday night, giving him a chance of forming a coalition to stay in power for a sixth term.
Three broadcasters’ exit polls projected that Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud, won from 31 to 33 seats, while his wider right-wing bloc won 53 to 54 seats — short of the 61 seats he needs to form a majority coalition in the 120-seat Parliament.
Mr. Netanyahu’s most obvious path to power now depends on Naftali Bennett, a rival right-winger whose party won seven to eight seats, and who could be a kingmaker.
With Mr. Bennett’s support, Mr. Netanyahu could assemble one of the most right-wing governments in Israeli history, created from ultra-Orthodox parties, ultranationalists, a group that campaigns against gay rights and another whose leader advocates expelling Arab citizens of Israel deemed disloyal to the state.
Final results are not expected until the end of the week, and could easily change the outcome.
Mr. Netanyahu campaigned on his record of handling the coronavirus pandemic, including a vaccine rollout that is the envy of the world, a credential that appears to have benefited him. Seeking re-election even as he was on trial on corruption charges, an unprecedented situation, did not prove fatal to his chances.
If he does return to power, Mr. Netanyahu has promised to enact sweeping legal reforms that would limit the power of the judiciary, and which his opponents fear would allow him to circumvent his corruption trial. Mr. Netanyahu’s colleagues have prevaricated in recent days about whether he would use his office to avoid prosecution, with one minister on Saturday refusing to rule it out.
Mr. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and that he would try to change the law to derail the trial.
“Israelis are more divided than ever, but it seems that Netanyahu may have convinced enough of them that he’s the most capable of leading the country in facing the challenges ahead,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem-based research group.
“His likely coalition will include partners who are expected to back Netanyahu in efforts he makes to impede the independence of the judicial system,” Mr. Plesner said.
The election caps two years of political uncertainty and polarization in which Israel has reeled from election to election to election, failing each time to return a stable government. The impasse is partly rooted in the nature of the Israeli election system, which allocates parliamentary seats according to each party’s share of the vote, making it easy for smaller parties to enter Parliament, and hard for larger parties to form majority governments.
But the stasis is also the result of Mr. Netanyahu’s refusal to resign despite standing trial over accusations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. That decision has split the right-wing bloc that has kept Mr. Netanyahu in power for the past 12 years, and divided voters and parties less by political ideology than by their attitude to Mr. Netanyahu himself.
Since neither Mr. Netanyahu nor his opponents could win a majority in the three previous elections, in 2019 and 2020, Mr. Netanyahu remained in power, first as a caretaker prime minister, and then at the helm of a shaky unity government with some of his fiercest critics.
But Tuesday’s results could finally return him to a position of strength, at the helm of an ideologically coherent right-wing coalition.
Any new government will immediately face substantive challenges, including an economy bruised by the pandemic, rising violent crime in Arab communities and potential threats from Iran. Diplomatically, Israel is trying to block the resurrection of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, which the United States government generally favors and which Israel considers inadequate.
And Israel will urgently need to adopt a new national budget for 2021, since the previous government failed to, a failure that led to its collapse.
All eyes now fall on Mr. Bennett, once a chief of staff to Mr. Netanyahu. A former software entrepreneur and a former commando in an elite unit of the Israeli Army, Mr. Bennett formed his own right-wing party in 2011 and has since been a minister in several previous Netanyahu-led coalition governments. He opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and supports annexing much of the occupied West Bank.
Throughout the campaign, Mr. Bennett refused to clarify whether he would help back a coalition led by Mr. Netanyahu, but he has refused to serve under the second-placed candidate, Yair Lapid, and analysts believe he could be persuaded to help Mr. Netanyahu return to office.
Exit polls suggested that Mr. Netanyahu had beaten off challenges from Mr. Lapid, the centrist leader of the opposition and former finance minister, whose party won 16 to 18 seats, according to exit polls, and Gideon Saar, a former Likud interior minister who quit the party in protest over Mr. Netanyahu’s refusal to step down. Mr. Saar’s new right-wing party won five to six seats, exit polls said, while the entire anti-Netanyahu bloc won 59 seats, two short of a majority — but with no route to power without Mr. Bennett.
If Mr. Netanyahu does retain office, he is expected to force a showdown with the judiciary. For years, the Israeli right has framed the Supreme Court as an elitist, activist institution that undercuts the will of the electorate. Its defenders say it protects democratic norms and does its best to stay out of the political fray.
In December, Mr. Netanyahu announced that he intended to curb the court’s influence, calling for “updated arrangements regarding the limits of the judiciary’s authority,” and promising that his party would enact them as soon as it was able. Without the constraints of his centrist former coalition partners, Mr. Netanyahu can put that plan into action.
The election was conducted against a backdrop of profound political gridlock, with the current cabinet so dysfunctional that it could not agree on a state budget for two consecutive years, nor the appointment of key state officials, including the state attorney and the senior officials at the justice and finance ministries.
The vote followed a campaign that centered on the suitability of Mr. Netanyahu himself, rather than on more existential or ideological questions like the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or how to bridge the divide between secular and religious Israelis.
Mr. Netanyahu presented himself as the only candidate able to deter what many Israelis see as the threats posed by Iran. He also sought to distinguish himself as a statesman who had cemented diplomatic relations with four Arab states and brought a world-leading vaccination program to Israel, helping the country to emerge recently into something approaching normal life.
It was a message that resonated with many voters.
“Bibi is the only leader in this country in my eyes,” said Elad Shnezik, a 24-year-old foreign-exchange trader who voted for Likud in Tzur Hadassah, a suburb west of Jerusalem. “I have never seen anything bad in his actions. Everything he does, he does for the people.”
Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents framed him as a threat to the rule of law, and a liability unable to govern effectively because of the distraction of his criminal trial. His attempts to position himself as a diplomatic trailblazer were dampened in the final days of the campaign, after a planned photo-opportunity in Abu Dhabi with the leadership of the United Arab Emirates fell through, amid Emirati frustration about being used as a prop in Mr. Netanyahu’s re-election campaign.
And Mr. Netanyahu’s pandemic leadership brought him as much criticism as praise. Though he presided over a successful vaccine rollout, he was accused of playing politics with other aspects of the pandemic response. In January, he resisted giving significantly larger fines to people who broke antivirus measures, a policy that would have disproportionately affected ultra-Orthodox Israelis. Ultra-Orthodox parties form about a quarter of Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing alliance, and he needs their support to form a coalition.
Mr. Netanyahu searched for every last vote, even from ideologically incoherent sections of society. Despite previously scorning and ignoring Israel’s Arab minority, which forms about 20 percent of the population, Mr. Netanyahu pushed hard in this electoral cycle for their support, presenting himself as the only person who could end the endemic violence and inequality that affects many Arab communities.
But simultaneously, he agreed to an electoral pact with a far-right alliance, whose leaders include Itamar Ben Gvir, a hard-line nationalist who until recently hung in his living room a portrait of Baruch Goldstein, an extremist who murdered 29 Palestinians in a mosque in the West Bank in 1994.
Patrick Kingsley and