Throughout the campaign, Mr. Bennett refused to clarify whether he would help back a coalition led by Mr. Netanyahu, but he has refused to serve under the second-placed candidate, Yair Lapid, and analysts believe he could be persuaded to help Mr. Netanyahu return to office.
Speaking to his supporters early Wednesday, he maintained his ambiguity, saying only that he would “wait patiently” for the final results. He called himself “a man of the right,” and said he was “determined to promote the values of the right in whatever government is formed.”
Mr. Netanyahu appeared to have fended off challenges from Mr. Lapid, the centrist leader of the opposition and former finance minister, whose party won 16 to 18 seats, according to exit polls, and Gideon Saar, a former Likud interior minister who quit the party in protest over Mr. Netanyahu’s refusal to step down. Mr. Saar’s new right-wing party won five to six seats, exit polls said, while the entire anti-Netanyahu bloc won 59 seats, two short of a majority — but with no route to power without Mr. Bennett.
If Mr. Netanyahu does retain office, he is expected to force a showdown with the judiciary. For years, the Israeli right has framed the Supreme Court as an elitist, activist institution that undercuts the will of the electorate. Its defenders say it protects democratic norms and does its best to stay out of the political fray.
In December, Mr. Netanyahu announced that he intended to curb the court’s influence, calling for “updated arrangements regarding the limits of the judiciary’s authority,” and promising that his party would enact them as soon as it was able. Without the constraints of his centrist former coalition partners, Mr. Netanyahu can put that plan into action.
The election was conducted against a backdrop of profound political gridlock, with the current cabinet so dysfunctional that it could not agree on a state budget for two consecutive years, nor the appointment of key state officials, including the state attorney and the senior officials at the justice and finance ministries.
The vote followed a campaign that centered on the suitability of Mr. Netanyahu himself, rather than on more existential or ideological questions like the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or how to bridge the divide between secular and religious Israelis.