Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed victory in Tuesday's parliamentary elections, and says the top priority of the new government will be to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal.
Netanyahu spoke shortly after three exit polls showed his hard-line Likud party alliance with the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party remaining, by a narrow margin, the biggest bloc in the 120-member parliament, the Knesset.
Netanyahu told cheering supporters "the first challenge was and remains preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons." He also said he hoped to "effect the kind of change the Israeli people are waiting for" with "the broadest government possible."
Data published as the polls closed showed Netanyahu's Likud-Beitenu slate winning 31 seats - 11 fewer than its 42 seats in the previous parliament. The centrist secular Yesh Atid won 19, followed by the Labor Party with 17 seats and the far-right religious nationalist Jewish Home with 12. Full preliminary results are expected Wednesday.
Israeli and Western media are describing the results as a setback for Netanyahu and his hard-line allies, and say the vote could force the prime minister to consider alliances with moderate rivals who made significant gains in the polls.
Nearly 67 percent of Israel's 5.5 million voters cast ballots Tuesday, a larger turnout than in previous elections. Some analysts say the turnout may have helped centrists gain traction and win legislative seats.
Official tallies are expected next week. After that, President Shimon Peres is likely to ask Netanyahu, as leader of the largest parliamentary bloc. to try to form a new government.