Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara cast their ballots at a polling station in Jerusalem, Tuesday, March 23, 2021. Israelis began voting on Tuesday in the country's fourth parliamentary election in two years — a highly charged referendum on the divisive rule of Netanyahu. Credit: Ronen Zvulun / Pool via AP

JERUSALEM — Israeli parliamentary elections on Tuesday resulted in a virtual deadlock for a fourth time in the past two years, exit polls indicated, leaving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with an uncertain future and the country facing the prospect of continued political gridlock.

The exit polls on Israel’s three main TV stations indicated that both Netanyahu and his religious and nationalist allies, along with an anti-Netanyahu group of parties, both fell short of the parliamentary majority required to form a new government. That left Naftali Bennett, leader of the small nationalist Yamina party, as the potential kingmaker, though even that was not certain.

The election was seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s polarizing leadership style, and the initial results showed that the country remains as deeply divided as ever, with an array of small sectarian parties dominating the parliament.

The results also signaled a continuing shift of the Israeli electorate toward the right wing, which opposes concessions in peace talks with the Palestinians, highlighted by the strong showing of an ultranationalist anti-Arab religious party.

Despite the inconclusive results, Netanyahu claimed his Likud party had claimed a “great victory” with fellow right-wing parties.

“It is clear that a clear majority of Israeli citizens are right wing, and they want a strong and stable right wing government that will protect the economy of Israel, security of Israel and land of Israel. This is what we will do,” he said on Facebook.

Exit polls have often been imprecise in the past, meaning the final results, expected in the coming days, could still shift the balance of power. Even if the final results are in line with Tuesday’s exit polls, there is no guarantee that Netanyahu will succeed in putting together a coalition.

Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said that the initial exit polls indicated the elections were still a very close call.

Even though Netanyahu, who is in the middle of a corruption trial, may manage to build a narrow government, he did not get a license “to overhaul the constitutional makeup of the state,” Plesner said.

“All three options are on the table: a Netanyahu-led government, a change coalition that will leave Netanyahu in the opposition and an interim government leading to a fifth election,” he said.

Several right-wing parties have vowed never to sit in a government with Netanyahu. And Bennett, a former Netanyahu ally turned harsh critic, refused to endorse either side during the campaign.

Bennett shares Netanyahu’s hard-line nationalist ideology and would seem to be more likely to ultimately join the prime minister. But Bennett has not ruled out joining forces with Netanyahu’s opponents.

In a speech to his supporters, Bennett said he would promote right-wing values in the next government, but failed to endorse Netanyahu and even took several veiled swipes at the prime minister’s leadership style.

“Now is the time for healing,” he said. “What was is not what will be.”

Bennett has indicated he will drive a hard bargain with Netanyahu, demanding senior Cabinet ministries and perhaps even a power-sharing arrangement that includes a stint as prime minister.

In addition, their partners would also include a pair of ultra-Orthodox religious parties and the “Religious Zionists,” a party whose leaders are openly racist and homophobic. One of its leaders, Itamir Ben-Gvir, is a disciple of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was branded a terrorist group by the U.S. before Kahane was assassinated in New York in 1990.

Relying on the party could be deeply embarrassing for Netanyahu on the international stage, particularly as he tries to court the new Biden administration.

The election campaign was largely devoid of substance and was seen instead as a referendum on Netanyahu’s divisive rule.

During the campaign, Netanyahu emphasized Israel’s highly successful coronavirus vaccination campaign. He moved aggressively to secure enough vaccines for Israel’s 9.3 million people, and in three months the country has vaccinated some 80 percent of its adult population. That has enabled the government to open restaurants, stores and the airport just in time for election day.

He also tried to portray himself as a global statesman, pointing to the four diplomatic accords he reached with Arab countries last year. Those agreements were brokered by his close ally, then-President Donald Trump.

Netanyahu’s opponents say the prime minister bungled many aspects of the pandemic, particularly by allowing his ultra-Orthodox allies to ignore lockdown rules and fuel a high infection rate for much of the year.

Over 6,000 Israelis have died from COVID-19, and the economy remains in weak shape with double-digit unemployment.

They also point to Netanyahu’s corruption trial, saying someone who is under indictment for serious crimes is not fit to lead the country. Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals that he dismisses as a witch hunt by a hostile media and legal system.

Even Netanyahu’s reputation as a statesman has suffered a bit in recent days. The United Arab Emirates, the most important of the four Arab nations to establish official diplomatic ties with Israel, last week made clear that it did not want to be used as part of Netanyahu’s reelection bid after he was forced to call off a visit to the country. The Biden administration also has kept its distance, a contrast to the support he received in past elections from Trump.

Netanyahu’s Likud Party was projected to emerge as the largest individual party, with just over 30 seats in the 120-seat parliament, followed by the centrist opposition party Yesh Atid, with some 17 seats.

The remainder of the parliament would be divided between some 10 other small parties. These range from an Arab party to left-wing secular parties to a pair of secular, right-wing parties.

Altogether, Netanyahu and his allies were projected to control 53 to 54 seats, while his opponents are expected to control some 58 or 59, with Bennett controlling the remainder.

Netanyahu’s opponents included a diverse array of parties that had little in common beyond their shared animosity toward him. Even if his opponents end up controlling a majority of seats, it will be difficult for them to bridge their ideological differences on such lightning rod issues as Palestinian statehood and the role of religion in the country.

They also were hurt by the disintegration of the main Arab party in parliament. A renegade member of the party ran separately but appeared not to win enough seats to enter parliament, robbing the alliance of key votes.

Tuesday’s election was sparked by the disintegration of an emergency government formed last May between Netanyahu and his chief rival at the time. The alliance was plagued by infighting, and elections were forced after they failed to agree on a budget in December.

Netanyahu’s opponents have accused him of fomenting deadlock in hopes of bringing about a friendlier parliament that will grant him immunity from prosecution.

After the results come in, attention will turn to the country’s figurehead president, Reuven Rivlin.

He will hold a series of meetings with party leaders and then choose the one he believes has the best chance of forming a government as his prime minister-designate. That task is usually, but not always, given to the head of the largest party. That will set off weeks of horse-trading as the prime minister-designate tries to cobble together a government with promises of generous budgets and powerful ministries to his would-be partners.

Voting in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Rivlin said the deadlock has had a price.

“Four elections in two years erode public trust in the democratic process,” he said, even as he urged Israelis to vote again. “There is no other way.”

Story by Josef Federman.