by Keren Setton
JERUSALEM, Sept. 18 (Xinhua) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have a difficult time to form a new coalition as the final election results become apparent, hours after the polls closed on Tuesday's general elections.
The elections were carried out for the second time this year in the country. Final official results are expected in the coming days.
The Likud party, led by Netanyahu, is running behind rivalling Blue White, which has 32 mandates, according to the latest results.
The Likud currently has 31 seats. Netanyahu's main allies, the ultra-right wing and the ultra-orthodox religious Jews, do not have enough for the 61 mandate majority needed to form a government.
Blue White will also have difficulty forming a government, with no clear majority in their bloc.
As foreseen, Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, is the kingmaker of the election. With nine or 10 mandates, he will determine which government will be formed.
Lieberman has said his party would like to see a unity government formed with him, the Likud and Blue White. That may sound simple, but it is exactly where things get complicated.
Blue White has said they will not sit in the same government with Netanyahu because he is facing corruption allegations and perhaps a prolonged legal battle.
So far, the Likud has been steadfast in its support for Netanyahu. But in the run-up to the election, there has been a gradual understanding that the Israeli prime minister might be an impediment and not an asset.
Gantz, the leader of Blue White, has not ruled out sitting with the Likud if led by someone other than Netanyahu. Will there be an internal revolt in the Likud or will Netanyahu stan down voluntarily in order to let his party remain in power?
"Netanyahu will remain the head of the Likud until it becomes absolutely clear to everyone that there is no government apart from Likud, Blue White and Lieberman and at that point it...I would expect somebody inside the Likud to take on Netanyahu," said Jonathan Rynhold, professor with the political science department at the Bar Ilan University.
In the immediate hours after the exit polls were published and formal results starting streaming in, Likud members said publicly that their support for Netanyahu was not wavering.
"You should be looking for cracks elsewhere," said senior Likud member Gideon Saar on Kan, an Israeli TV channel.
Gantz and Lieberman who spoke to their supporters late last night both said they would start working on creating a national unity government.
Netanyahu, whose voice was hoarse from aggressive campaigning in recent days, told Likud supporters he will form a strong Zionist government. He was far from conceding defeat.
Throughout the campaign, Netanyahu was vociferous against the Arab-Israeli citizens, about 20 percent of the voters. It was, perhaps, his biggest mistake.
The Arab response was a high turnout rate with many votes for the Joint List of Arab parties resulting in about 12 mandates. But Arab-Israeli citizens have a complicated relationship with Israeli democracy. Their power will most likely not be translated into government seats or ministerial positions.
"At best, what they can do... they may support a government from outside. That's the best that they can do. They cannot join the government, because the Zionist parties wouldn't like them to join and they themselves don't want to join, because as long as there is a conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, they don't want to take part in it," said Gideon Rahat, a professor at the Israeli Democracy Institute. Israeli media has reported that Gantz has already reached out to the leaders of the Joint List in order to discuss options of cooperation.
Another satisfied politician is Lieberman, who will determine the identity of Israel's next prime minister. A former ally of Netanyahu, Lieberman almost double his power this time around with between nine to 10 mandates.
"Lieberman, sitting in the middle, can give a majority to either left or right and what he claims is that he wants them to go together -- Likud and Blue and White, and himself, building what we call a unity government and this unity government would be a secular unity government," Rahat told Xinhua.
Lieberman is at odds with religious Jews on state-religion issues, such as civil marriage, mandatory education for all students and other hot topics which occupy the minds of many Israelis. His pitch for secularist right wing politics hit a ripe audience which doubled power.
"The majority of the Israeli public do not like a government in which the ultra-orthodox have a lot of power because it limits their personal freedom and it also takes fund away from mainstream things into particularly ultra-orthodox institutions," Rynhold told Xinhua.
This election was largely a referendum on Netanyahu. He has been in power for over a decade and is Israel's longest serving prime minister. The criminal charges he might face have clouded his last years in office and may have ultimately brought to the end of his reign. This will become clear in the coming weeks as coalition negotiations progress.
For years, he has been called by his supporters "King Bibi" and many, even his opponents, consider him "the magician," a mastermind at political maneuvering who even manages to emerge with the upper hand, when the cards seem to be stacked against him.
"He (Netanyahu) built his strategy on uniting the right and gaining ultra-orthodox support and now Lieberman has found its weak point which is the public do not want a narrow right wing government with the ultra-orthodox having a lot of power," said Rynhold.
"With the indictment hanging over him in which the public does not want him to receive automatic immunity, I think this means his magic has worn off," added Rynhold.
Coalition negotiations and political wrangling has already begun, even as the votes continue to be counted and the final results are yet to be official.
This time Netanyahu, just like any other magician, may still have some tricks up his sleeve.