JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party emerged as the largest faction in a hotly contested parliamentary election Tuesday, positioning the hard-liner to serve a new term as prime minister, according to exit polls. But a lackluster performance by Likud, along with surprising gains by a centrist newcomer, raised the strong possibility that he will be forced to form a broad coalition.
The exit polls aired on Israel's three major TV stations all forecast that Likud and its traditional hard-line and religious allies had a shaky majority of just 61 or 62 seats in the 120-member parliament.
In a statement posted on his Facebook page, Mr. Netanyahu said he would reach across the aisle to try to form a broad-based coalition.
"According to the exit polls, it is clear that Israel citizens decided that they want me to continue to serve as prime minister of Israel, and that I form the widest possible majority [coalition]," he said.
According to the exit polls, Mr. Netanyahu's Likud-Yisrael Beitenu bloc captured just 31 seats, far below forecasts of recent opinion polls. The two parties, running separately, had 42 seats in the outgoing house.
In the biggest surprise, the centrist Yesh Atid party headed by political newcomer Yair Lapid, captured as many as 19 seats, well above the forecasts. That would position Mr. Lapid to become either opposition leader or seek a major Cabinet post if he decides to join Mr. Netanyahu's governing coalition.
Mr. Lapid campaigned on a platform calling for an end to the generous subsidies and draft exemptions given to ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. He also has said he would not serve as a "fig leaf" for a hard-line government.
Mr. Lapid would likely seek deep concessions from Mr. Netanyahu in exchange for joining the government.
'Last chance' with Palestinians
The Obama administration said Tuesday that regardless of the results of the election, the U.S. approach to the conflict would not change. President Obama has had a turbulent relationship with Mr. Netanyahu, and the two leaders could find themselves on a collision course in their new terms.
"We will continue to make clear that only through direct negotiations can the Palestinians and the Israelis … achieve the peace they both deserve," said White House spokesman Jay Carney, adding that the complexity of the conflict, not Mr. Obama's relationship with the Israeli leader, is the main impediment.
In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague urged Mr. Obama to make the Middle East peace process his top priority.
"We are approaching the last chance to bring about such a solution," Mr. Hague warned.
For the first time in decades, the conflict with the Palestinians was not the defining issue in the election campaign after many Israelis came to believe a peace deal is impossible.
That deprived Mr. Netanyahu's more moderate opponents of their traditional focus for elections, and the fractured center-left camp failed to unite behind a viable alternative candidate, practically ensuring another Netanyahu victory.
Not a sure thing
Yifat Segev, like many Israelis, said she was undecided until she stepped into the polling booth and noted the lack of excitement that has characterized previous races. In the end, she chose centrist newcomer Yair Lapid, 31, over Mr. Netanyahu, known by his nickname Bibi.
"I figured Bibi's going to be prime minister anyway, so I might as well give some power to Lapid," said the mother of three from the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion.
Mr. Netanyahu is widely seen, even by some opponents, as the man best suited to lead the country at a delicate time.
Throughout the campaign, he maintained a lead in the polls with a message that the country needs a tough-minded and experienced leader to face down dangers, including the Iranian nuclear program, potentially loose chemical weapons in Syria and the rise of fundamentalist Islam in Egypt and other Arab countries amid the Arab Spring.
Election officials reported relatively high turnout compared to previous years, boosted by sunny, springlike weather. A heavy turnout could favor Mr. Netanyahu's opponents, whose voters tend to have a lower participation rate than the highly motivated hard-liners.
Mr. Netanyahu was smiling when he arrived early at a heavily secured polling station in Jerusalem with his wife, Sara, and two sons, both first-time voters.
Many opponents yielded the security issue to Mr. Netanyahu and instead campaigned on economic concerns, such as the high cost of living and the government's much-maligned practice of giving generous handouts and draft exemptions to ultra-Orthodox Jews.
While Israel's economy has remained on solid footing, Mr. Netanyahu's government has run up a huge deficit that could force steep budget cuts in coming months.
Only one major contender, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, campaigned on a platform centered on the need for peace with Palestinians. Her new Movement party was expected to emerge as a midsize faction.
Ms. Livni implored voters to think about the "big decisions" at hand.
"The vote I have cast includes the hopes of all the people who don't want four more years of Netanyahu and this government," she said.
A Netanyahu government
In the run-up to the election, opinion polls universally forecast Mr. Netanyahu's Likud-Yisrael Beitenu alliance emerging as the largest single bloc.
Should the right-wing and religious parties fail to muster a majority, there will be a mad scramble on the center-left to try to form a coalition on their own.
Under that scenario, Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich could end up as prime minister. The former radio journalist who once backed Israel's Communist Party campaigned on a promise to narrow the gap between rich and poor, and has said she will not sit in a Netanyahu government.
But such an outcome appears unlikely.
In all, candidates from 32 parties were running. Israel historically has had multiparty governments because no party has ever won an outright majority in the country's 64-year history.
In a sign of the times, many Israelis advertised their voting choice by photographing their completed ballot and uploading it to Facebook.
If victorious, Mr. Netanyahu is expected to reach across the aisle and court at least one of the more-centrist parties. This would reduce his reliance on the hard-liners and present a more palatable face to the outside world.
It remains unclear whether he would be able to do so, as it would require concessions on key economic or political issues that would alienate his core supporters.
A shift by Mr. Netanyahu away from his tough line toward the Palestinians appears unlikely. Mr. Netanyahu himself has only grudgingly voiced conditional support for a Palestinian state, and his own party now is dominated by hard-liners who oppose even this.
Likud primaries robbed the party of its most moderate figures, and up to one-sixth of the incoming legislature is expected to be settlers who advocate holding on to captured land that Palestinians want for a future state. That could translate into a more hawkish government.
A likely coalition partner, Naftali Bennett of the surging Jewish Home Party, has even called for annexing large parts of the West Bank, the core of any future Palestinian state.