JERUSALEM – Israel's parliament election ended in a deadlock, according to TV exit polls, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to hold the advantage ahead of coalition talks. Here is a look at how the main players fared.
NETANYAHU DID WELL
Netanyahu's Likud Party came from behind after trailing in the polls to pull roughly even with its main rival, the center-left Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog. The comeback, fueled by an aggressive appeal to his hard-line base, gave Netanyahu a strong shot at securing a fourth term. Both he and Herzog now compete for a chance to form a coalition that commands a majority in the 120-seat parliament, a complicated task in Israel's fractured political landscape. Some say Netanyahu has a better chance than Herzog of cobbling together a government, by courting his "natural allies," rightist and religious parties. Herzog would have to appeal to more ideologically diverse allies, including hard-liners and religious parties, and perhaps Arab parties, to build a coalition.
MOSHE KAHLON IS THE KINGMAKER
Kahlon, the 54-year-old leader of an upstart centrist party, Kulanu, is seen as the kingmaker of the inconclusive elections. With his party's predicted 10 seats, according to TV exit polls, Kahlon would have a decisive say in who becomes the next prime minister. Kahlon has said his main objective is to become Israel's next finance minister in order to carry out economic reforms and lower the cost of living. Kahlon hasn't said whom he favors. He has deep political roots in the Likud but fell out with Netanyahu two years ago.
This unprecedented union of four largely Arab-backed factions became Israel's third largest party — with 13 seats, according to exit polls — and gave Israel's Arab minority significant leverage in parliament for the first time. Party leader Ayman Odeh said Tuesday that the Joint List will try to prevent the formation of a Netanyahu-led government, but will not join a Herzog-run coalition — to avoid having to be party to decisions on possible military campaigns or building more Jewish settlements. In the event of a Netanyahu-Herzog unity government, the Joint List expects to take on the high profile role of leader of the opposition.
When Netanyahu called early elections three months ago, Herzog and his Labor Party were seen as politically too weak to mount an effective challenge. Herzog confounded expectations, rising in the polls after joining forces with former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and her centrist Tnuah party to form an alliance they called the Zionist Union. Despite his quiet demeanor and perceived lack of charisma, Herzog emerged as a credible candidate for prime minister. He has a long shot at the top job, if he can persuade Kahlon to back him.
Netanyahu's ultra-nationalist foreign minister last year promoted legislation raising the vote threshold for parties getting into parliament — and almost became a victim of his own initiative. Lieberman's Israel Beitenu barely crossed the threshold with five seats, according to exit polls, a sharp drop from the 2013 election when his joint list with Likud won 31 seats. Despite his hawkish views, Lieberman hasn't said if he will endorse Netanyahu.
PALESTINIAN PRESIDENT MAHMOUD ABBAS
A deal with Israel on the terms of Palestinian statehood remains at the core of Abbas' political strategy. In the final stretch of the campaign, Netanyahu vowed to prevent the creation of such a state on his watch, going back on long-standing promises to the international community and the Palestinians. If Netanyahu wins another term, Abbas would have to acknowledge that his strategy has failed and likely be pushed into a more confrontational approach toward Israel.
Herzog has said he wants to resume negotiations with the Palestinians, but would likely be constrained by a diverse coalition and not be able to take risky decisions required in any peace deal.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA
The relationship between Obama and Netanyahu has become increasingly strained, particularly after the Israeli leader openly challenged the president's efforts to negotiate a deal on curbing Iran's nuclear program. If Netanyahu secures another term, the two leaders would have to find a way to work together. A decisive victory by Israel's center-left camp would have made it easier for Obama to push for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.