Israeli television networks say incumbent Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his right-wing Likud Party have scored a substantial victory and will lead the country's next coalition government. The network projections, based on voter surveys, were released as soon as the polls closed Tuesday evening.
Within seconds after the polls closed at 10 in the evening local time, exit poll results were announced on Israeli television.
Israel's Channel Two made the announcement sound dramatic, but the outcome was no surprise. Opinion polls have been predicting for weeks that Mr. Sharon would win. Initial exit polls indicate that his Likud Party will have between 33 and 36 seats in the 120-member parliament.
The big loser of the day, also as predicted, was the Labor Party which is estimated to have won only 18 or 19 seats, the poorest showing in its history.
Mr. Sharon's rival, the Labor Party's Amram Mitzna has conceded defeat. He told supporters voters had chosen Labor as the alternative. He vowed that the Labor Party would not join in a Likud coalition, but would instead be the opposition, waiting to replace the Sharon-led government.
The vehemently secular, anti-religious party, Shinui came in third with an estimated 14 to 17 seats, its best performance ever.
The ultra-orthodox religious party Shas lost ground, projected to receive between nine and 13 seats, down from the 17 seats it held in the last parliament.
Official results are expected to be issued later in the night.
Analysts have been predicting this kind of outcome. They say two years of Israeli-Palestinian violence has left many Israelis disillusioned about prospects for peace and has increased support for Mr. Sharon's tough policies against the Palestinians.
Analysts have also said that Israelis were not likely to vote against the experienced incumbent in favor of the Labor Party's relatively inexperienced Amram Mitzna, the mayor of the city of Haifa, who wants immediate resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians.
Mr. Sharon is expected to have weeks of complex negotiations ahead to form a ruling coalition of several parties with very diverse views.