JERUSALEM: Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday emerged from hard-fought elections weakened but still best placed to form a new government and likely to reach out to centrist parties strengthened by the vote.
In results that defied expectations, the centrist Yesh Atid became Israel's second strongest party, just a year after it was created by former journalist Yair Lapid, who has overnight become the country's newest political star.
And the strong results for centrist parties left the Knesset's 120 seats equally divided by the country's rightwing and centre-left blocs.
Though the split means the centre-left could seek to prevent Netanyahu from forming a government, his strong showing leaves him well-placed to form a broad-based coalition, analysts said.
But the result will be a blow for Netanyahu, who had sought a bulletproof rightwing majority that would give him freedom to maneouvre on key foreign policy issues including Iran's nuclear programme and peace with the Palestinians.
By 0600 GMT, with 99.5 percent of the votes counted, Israel's electoral committee said the list grouping Netanyahu's rightwing Likud and the secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu faction had won 31 seats.
The national religious Jewish Home won 11 seats, as did the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas. The Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism faction won seven seats, bringing the bloc's total to 60.
On the centre-left side, Yesh Atid came away with 19 seats, slightly ahead of the centre-left Labour party, which won 15.
The HaTnuah faction of former foreign minister Tzipi Livni carried six seats, as did the leftwing Meretz, while Livni's onetime party Kadima won just two.
Combined, the three Arab Israeli parties that crossed the electoral threshold to make a showing in the parliament, won 12 seats, giving the centre-left 60 seats as well.
The almost-final figures mirrored the exit polls that were released on Tuesday night after polls closed at 2000 GMT and prompted the 15 or so activists at Yesh Atid's small Tel Aviv campaign headquarters to explode into cries of victory.