Leaders of the Joint List of Arab parties, which TV exit polls said had won between 11 and 15 seats in the election, heralded the result as a victory over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“I want to thank our public, this was a great achievement for us, the Arab public responded, went out and delivered a great vote of confidence to the Joint List, and I believe we will end up with 13 seats and send that inciter Netanyahu home,” said Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh.
The initial exit polls indicate that the Arab bloc will be the third largest bloc in Israel's next parliament. Which marks a "historic" moment for the minority, which has long complained of discrimination.
Initial exit polls released by Israel's main three TV stations indicate the Joint List won around a dozen seats in the 120-seat parliament in Tuesday's elections. The polls indicate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will fall short of a parliamentary majority, potentially marking the end of his decade-long rule.
Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, told Israeli media that if the final results match the exit polls, Arab voters will have "prevented Netanyahu from forming a government." Netanyahu had repeatedly warned his supporters about large Arab turnout, using language that was widely seen as racist.
Arab citizens make up around 20% of Israel's population and largely identify with the Palestinians.
The partial results released Wednesday by the Central Election Commission were based on 35 percent of the vote counted. The three Israeli TV channels reported the same outcome, based on more than 90 percent of the vote counted, but did not explain the discrepancy with the commission's percentage.
Netanyahu fell short of majority
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fell short of securing a parliamentary majority with his natural religious and nationalist allies in national elections Tuesday, partial results indicated, setting the stage for a period of coalition negotiations that could threaten his political future and even clear the way for him to be tried on corruption charges.
Initial partial results showed challenger Benny Gantz's centrist Blue and White party tied with Netanyahu's Likud. While the results do not guarantee that Gantz will be the next prime minister, they signaled that Netanyahu, who has led the country for over 10 years, could have trouble holding on to the job.
Addressing his supporters early Wednesday, Netanyahu refused to concede defeat and vowed to work to form a new government that excludes Arab parties. His campaign focused heavily on attacking and questioning the loyalty of the country's Arab minority - a strategy that drew accusations of racism and incitement from Arab leaders.
"In the coming days we will convene negotiations to assemble a strong Zionist government and to prevent a dangerous anti-Zionist government," he said. He claimed that Arab parties "negate the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state" and "glorify bloodthirsty murderers."
Final results are expected Wednesday and could still swing in Netanyahu's favor.
According to the partial results, the parties of Gantz and Netanyahu received 32 seats each in the 120-member parliament. Likud with its natural allies of religious and ultra-nationalist parties mustered 56 seats - or five short of the needed majority.
This means both Likud and Blue and White will have difficulty setting up a governing coalition without the support of Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party. That put Lieberman, a former protege of Netanyahu's who has become one of the prime minister's fiercest rivals, in the position of kingmaker.
Arab parties, which have never before sat in an Israeli government, also finished strong, and exit polls predicted they would form the third-largest party in parliament.
Ayman Odeh, leader of the main Arab faction in parliament, said Netanyahu's repeated attacks had boosted turnout and hurt Netanyahu in the end.
"There's a heavy price to pay for incitement," he told Channel 13 TV.
The election was Israel's second of the year.
In April's vote, Netanyahu appeared to have the upper hand, with his traditional allies of nationalist and ultra-religious Jewish parties controlling a parliamentary majority.
But Lieberman, his mercurial ally-turned-rival, refused to join the new coalition, citing excessive influence it granted the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties. Without a parliamentary majority, Netanyahu dissolved parliament and called a new election.
Lieberman's gamble paid off Tuesday, and partial results indicated his party had nearly doubled in strength, with nine seats.
Israel's election commission said 69.4% of all eligible voters cast ballots by the time polls closed on Tuesday evening, a slightly larger number than took part in April's vote. Turnout in April's elections was 68.5%