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Confetti falls as Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, center right, and his wife Sara Netanyahu stand on stage at the Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv early on Tuesday. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Occupied Jerusalem: Israel’s embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced an uncertain path to staying in office on Tuesday, even as preliminary results showed his Likud party pulling ahead of its opponents in the country’s third election in less than a year.

Exit polls on Israeli TV stations showed Likud and its allies capturing 59 seats out of the 120 in parliament. That would still put Likud and its ultra-religious and nationalist bloc short of the parliamentary majority required to form a government.

With roughly 60 per cent of votes already counted, final results are expected to be announced later Tuesday and could swing Netanyahu over the top weeks before he goes to trial to face corruption charges.

But if the official results match the exit polls, and Netanyahu’s camp is unable to draw in defectors from the opposing camp, Israel’s prolonged political gridlock looked set to continue with the prospect of a fourth election.

The uncertainty didn’t stop Netanyahu from declaring victory early Tuesday in front of a raucous crowd of supporters.

“This is a victory against all the odds, because we stood against powerful forces,” he said. “They already eulogized us. Our opponents said the Netanyahu era is over.”

He vowed to immediately begin work to form a new coalition and press forward with a hard-line agenda that includes annexing large parts of the West Bank - a step that would undermine any remaining hopes of establishing a Palestinian state. Netanyahu aide Jonathan Urich told Israel’s Army Radio that efforts were already underway to recruit defectors and that “I believe that fairly shortly we will find the missing pieces from the other bloc.”

Regardless of the final outcome, the vote seemed to mark a devastating setback for Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party and its allies on the centre-left, who had grand ambitions the topple Netanyahu after more than a decade in power. But with Blue and White party trailing Likud by several seats that option appears off the table, as infighting has already begun among the fragmented opposition.

After the last election in September, both Netanyahu and Gantz, a former military chief, were given opportunities to form coalitions. Both failed. With Likud projected to be the largest party, Netanyahu looked to get first crack at assembling a coalition this time around.

The easiest way out of the impasse would be a unity government between Likud and Blue and White, which together command a solid parliamentary majority. Gantz, however, has ruled out a partnership as long as Netanyahu remains in charge and after an ugly campaign marked by vicious unfounded smears against him, Gantz appears unlikely to consider it.

The most the anti-Netanyahu forces in Israel seem to be able to hope for now is to eke out a narrow “blocking majority” and force yet another vote.

Netanyahu was indicted in November on charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes, making him the first sitting prime minister to be charged with a crime. He denies any wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a witch hunt by police, prosecutors and a hostile media.

During the campaign, Netanyahu failed in a bid to secure immunity from prosecution. As prime minister, he could still rally public opposition against prosecutors and judges in the case. He also could seek other avenues to delay or derail the proceedings against him.