JERUSALEM - With votes still being counted Wednesday, Israel's two main political parties were short of being able to form a majority coalition of 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party did not claim victory or concede defeat as he spoke to supporters early Wednesday. He told them he would work in the coming days to assemble a "strong Zionist government" that excludes Arab parties.
Challenger and former Israeli army head Benny Gantz, of the Blue and White party, said in front of his cheering supporters that he would try to form "a wide unity government that will express the will of the people."
Once the final results are in, President Reuven Rivlin will hold consultations with each of the party heads, and ask either Netanyahu or Gantz to form a government.
The kingmaker this time, as last time, is former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the mostly Russian-supported Yisrael Beitenu party. He favors a unity government with Netanyahu's Likud, Gantz's Blue and White, and his party, without the ultra-Orthodox or other smaller parties.
After the last election, Gantz said he would consider this type of government only if Netanyahu stepped down as Likud leader. Netanyahu is facing a series of corruption allegations, including fraud and breach of trust.
Netanyahu had hoped to win a clear majority and many expected he would then legislate immunity for himself.
Yossi Klein Halevi of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem said the election was a vote for or against Netanyahu.
"Behind the personal referendum, there is a deeper referendum this election is expressing," he said. "It worries me very much, because for the first time we have in effect a referendum on democracy."