(Eds: Updating with more details) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to gain majority in the unprecedented third parliamentary elections in the country with the exit polls projecting him to win 59 seats, just two short of the majority in the 120-member Parliament, according to media reports on March 3.
Israelis voted on March 2 for the third time in less than a year to break the deadlock on government formation, with the country's longest serving premier Netanyahu, 70, fighting for his political survival amid indictments on graft charges.
The final voter turnout in the polls was 71 per cent, up from 69.8 per cent in the last elections held in September, which were called after Netanyahu and his main challenger Benny Gantz -- leader of the Blue and White alliance -- were unable to put together majority coalitions.
The exit polls were published shortly after the voting ended.
However, the official results which were scheduled to be declared on March 3 have been delayed due to new procedures enacted for this election, as well as the issue of counting ballots of voters under quarantine for coronavirus, the Harretz newspaper reported.
Final vote tallies are expected by March 4, it said.
Likud party is leading with 36 seats, while Gantz earned 29 seats after 31 per cent of votes were counted at 6:40 am (Israeli time) on March 3, the report said.
The Joint List is currently the third largest party with 12 seats, closely followed by United Torah Judaism and Shas, each with 11. Yamina has eight seats, Labor-Gesher-Meretz seven, and Yisrael Beiteinu has six, it said.
The initial exit polls had predicted 60 seats for Netanyahu, while the new prediction of 59 seats leaves him two short of a majority in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament), The Jerusalem Post reported.
The numbers are expected to change as the votes of soldiers, who tend to lean to the right, have not yet been counted and the Joint List tends to go down a seat when the soldiers' votes are added, it said.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu spoke to the heads of the parties in his camp immediately after the exit polls were announced, The Jerusalem Post said in its report.
Sources in Likud said he would even try to form a government before his criminal trial begins on March 17.
Netanyahu, who has been the premier for a total of more than 13 years, faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in connection with three cases.
Israel has always had a coalition government and never seen a single party rule since its independence. The religious parties, themselves a divided lot but definitely on the Right side of the political spectrum, have always been a part of the coalition governments except one led by Ariel Sharon.
The voter turnout in the latest elections is the highest since the 1999 elections when incumbent Netanyahu lost to Ehud Barak in a direct contest.