UPDATE: Israeli voters returned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party to power Tuesday, but not by the large margins some poll-watchers predicted.
Netanyahu now must form a broad-based coalition to keep control of parliament. Likud and its hardline allies won just half the body’s 120 seats, with the centrist Yesh Atid party capturing as many as 19 seats, many more than expected. Official results will continue to come in throughout the evening, and final seat totals could change.
If Netanyahu does try to bring more centrist parties into his coalition, it could breathe life into the stalled Mideast peace process. Netanyahu’s opponents said they would only join forces with Likud if the prime minister made a serious push for peace with the Palestinians.
On his Facebook page late Tuesday, Netanyahu said he would work toward consensus.
"According to the exit polls, it is clear that Israel citizens decided that they want me to continue to serve as prime minister of Israel, and that I form the widest possible majority (coalition)," he said. "Already this evening I will begin working toward the widest possible government."
EARLIER STORY: Exit polls predict Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will head back to office after Tuesday’s election, despite divided opinions about his leadership.
The 63-year-old politician has faced criticism internationally for his hard line on concessions to the Palestinians and at home for his nation’s economic struggles.
For the first time in decades, the Mideast peace process didn’t take center stage in the election. Instead, many Israelis focused more on monetary woes than ending their conflict with the Palestinians.
The country faces a declining economy and swelling budget deficit, which means painful government spending cuts and possible tax increases are in store for an electorate already strained by the high cost of living.
And around every corner looms the possibility that the country could attack Iran over its suspect nuclear program—a move that would likely draw harsh retaliation from Iran and its proxies.
Still, many voters said they saw no viable alternative to the current prime minister.
Polls suggest hard-line and religious parties that have been Netanyahu’s traditional allies will continue to form the core of his next coalition government.
The big question is whether Netanyahu will be able to entice centrist parties with more moderate positions on peacemaking into his governing coalition—and whether they would have any influence on his policies.
According to Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, there’s “nothing to see here.”
“If Netanyahu decides to join forces with former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, the peace process will be back on the menu for the next term. Labor … not so much,” she wrote in a blog post today. “Most Israelis have little hope that the Palestinians are ready for anything other than conflict.”
And according to Pletka, neither President Barack Obama or Sen. John Kerry, if confirmed as secretary of state, will be up for an endless rerun of the peace process.
“Instead, we’ll be looking to Obama’s new team to figure out how to stop the Israelis from acting against Iran when it gets the makings of a nuclear bomb this year, stanch spillover from an increasingly turbulent Middle East, and manage the retreat that is the Obama foreign policy signature,” Pletka wrote.
“In other words, Israel, peace process … whatever.”
All the polls show Netanyahu’s Likud Party—in alliance with the more hawkish Israel Beitenu party—winning more than a quarter of the seats in parliament. When joined with other rightist and religious parties, the coalition will command at least a narrow majority.
Yakov Krugliack of the Nokdim settlement in the West Bank said quality of life was foremost in his mind as he went to the polls.
"The economic challenge will be the biggest challenge of this government," he said. "I would like to have a house, I would like to live a good life with my family."
Up to one-sixth of the incoming legislature is expected to be settlers who advocate holding on to captured land the Palestinians want for a future state. The pro-settler Jewish Home—a likely coalition partner that has drawn a surprisingly large number of votes away from Netanyahu's list, according to polls—is even pressing to annex large chunks of the West Bank, the core of any future Palestinian state.
Motti Saban, a 25-year-old student in Jerusalem, said he would vote for Jewish Home.
"We are right-wing and we want to see a parliament that is more right wing than now," Saban said. While social issues are important, he said, they are being promoted most by left-leaning parties more open to making territorial concessions, including partitioning the holy city of Jerusalem.
"So yes, social issues affect us all, but I won't give up Jerusalem, that's more important," Saban said.
Polls close at 10 p.m. local time (3 p.m. EST), and preliminary results are expected about two hours later.