Will deadlocked Knesset bring unity gov't - or a third election?

As both Right and Left claim victory, deadlocked Knesset could force yet another election - or a unity government.

Mike Smith & Michael Blum, AFP ,

Netanyahu and Gantz
Netanyahu and Gantz

Israeli vote results on Friday confirmed a deadlock in the country's general election and put Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud party as the second-largest, leaving him with a tough battle to extend his long tenure in office.

The near-complete official results from Tuesday's election gave ex-military chief Benny Gantz's center-left Blue and White alliance the most seats, with 33 out of parliament's 120.

Netanyahu's Likud won 31 seats, but neither had an obvious path to a majority coalition.

In a stark admission on Thursday, Netanyahu acknowledged he was unable to form a right-wing coalition as he hoped and called on Gantz to join him in a unity government instead.

Gantz responded by saying he would have to be prime minister in a unity government since Blue and White was the largest party.

The standoff has even raised the possibility of yet another election -- which would be the third to be held in a year following April polls that also ended inconclusively.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin plans to begin consultations with all parties voted into parliament on Sunday to decide who to choose to try to form a government.

Final results will be published on Wednesday and there could be changes before then, Israel's election committee said. Some 99.8% of the vote has been counted thus far.

The committee said the results did not include 14 polling stations where verifications were still ongoing.

The third-largest total was the mainly Arab Joint List alliance, which won 13 seats, up from 10 seats its constituent factions won in the April election. The three-seat gain was fueled primarily by a 10-point increase in turnout among Israeli Arabs, from just under 50% in April to approximately 59% in Tuesday’s election.

Its strong showing opened the possibility that its leader, MK Ayman Odeh, could become the country's first Arab opposition chief if Likud and Blue and White form a unity government.

'Won the election'

Following the Joint List, the country's two haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, won nine and eight seats respectively.

Ex-defense minister Avigdor Lieberman's secular rightist Yisrael Beytenu party also won eight seats, and he could potentially play a kingmaker role. Liberman has called for a unity government between his party, Likud and Blue and White, excluding the haredi parties, which he accuses of seeking to force religious law onto the country's secular population.

But the main focus in the coming days will be on Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving prime minister but who is facing potential corruption charges in the weeks ahead.

He was widely seen as hoping to have the new parliament grant him immunity from prosecution, but that may now be impossible even if he does manage to remain premier.

"During the elections, I called for the establishment of a right-wing government," Netanyahu said in a video message on Thursday.

"But unfortunately the election results show that this is not possible."

He went on to call on Gantz to form a "broad unity government today."

The two men shook hands when they crossed paths at a memorial event later in the day, but Gantz made his position clear on Thursday afternoon.

Gantz too called for a unity government, but he insisted that he be prime minister.

"Blue and White, headed by me, has won the election," he said. "Blue and White is the largest party."

One possibility which neither side raised publicly would be the formation of a unity government with a power-sharing agreement in which Netanyahu and Gantz rotate as premier.

In the 1980s, two narrow elections led to the formation of unity governments including both the Likud and Labor.

In 1984 and again in 1988, Likud's Yitzhak Shamir and Labor's Shimon Peres agreed to a power-sharing agreement in which the premiership rotated between them, with Peres becoming prime minister for two years, from 1984 to 1986, before handing the position to Shamir. Shamir retained the position in the unity government formed after the 1988 elections, and was set to return the premiership to Peres in 1990, until Labor bolted from the government in a bid to form an alternative coalition with haredi parties, what was later called the "Dirty Trick" of 1990.