Netanyahu claims victory in Israel
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged the bruised winner of Israel's election today, with his hawkish bloc unexpectedly losing ground to resurgent centre-left challengers, exit polls showed.
They suggested the Israeli leader's Likud party, yoked with the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu group, would still be the biggest bloc in the 120-member assembly with 31 seats, 11 fewer than the 42 they held in the previous parliament.
If the exit polls compiled by three Israeli television channels prove correct, Netanyahu would be on course to secure a third term in office, perhaps leading a hardline coalition that would promote Jewish settlement on occupied land.
But his weakened showing in an election he himself called earlier than necessary could complicate the struggle to forge an alliance with a stable majority in parliament.
The projections showed right-wing parties with a combined strength of 61-62 seats against 58-59 for the centre-left.
"According to the exit poll results, it is clear that Israel's citizens have decided that they want me to continue in the job of prime minister of Israel and to form as broad a government as possible," Mr Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page.
But the mood was subdued at his Likud party's election headquarters, with only a couple of hundred party activists and supporters in a venue that could house thousands.
The 63-year-old Israeli leader promised during his election campaign to focus on tackling Iran's nuclear ambitions if he won, shunting Palestinian peacemaking well down the agenda despite Western concern to keep the quest for a solution alive.
After a lacklustre campaign, Israelis voted in droves on a sunny winter day, registering the highest projected turnout since 1999 when Mr Netanyahu, serving his first term as prime minister, was defeated by then-Labour Party leader Ehud Barak.
The strong turnout buoyed centre-left parties which had pinned their hopes on energizing an army of undecided voters against Netanyahu and his nationalist-religious allies.
The centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, led by former television talk show host Yair Lapid, came second with 18 or 19 seats, exit polls showed - a stunning result for a newcomer to politics in a field of 32 contending parties.
Mr Lapid won support amongst middle-class, secular voters by promising to resolve a growing housing shortage, abolish military draft exemptions for Jewish seminary students and seek an overhaul of the failing education system.
The once dominant Labour party led by Shelly Yachimovich was projected to take third place with 17 seats.
A stream of opinion polls before the election had predicted an easy win for Mr Netanyahu. The final opinion polls on Friday showed his Likud-Beitenu group still on top, but losing some ground to the Jewish Home party, which opposes a Palestinian state and advocates annexing chunks of the occupied West Bank.