JERUSALEM — In a stunning setback, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hard-line bloc fared worse than expected in a parliamentary election Tuesday, exit polls showed, possibly forcing the incumbent Israeli leader to invite surprisingly strong moderate rivals into his government and soften his line toward the Palestinians.
TV exit polls showed the hard-liners with about 61 seats in the 120-seat parliament, a bare majority, and the counts could change as actual votes are tallied.
The unofficial TV results had Netanyahu winning only 31 seats, though he combined his Likud Party with the far-right Yisrael Beitenu for the voting. Running separately four years ago, the two won 42 seats.
If they hold up through the actual vote counting, the unexpected results could be seen a setback for Netanyahu's tough policies. The coalition-building process could force him to promise concessions to restart long-stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu made a quick phone call to a newcomer on Israel's political stage, Yair Lapid, whose centrist party debuted with a strong showing of 19 seats, making it the second-largest party after Netanyahu's.
In a statement posted on his Facebook page, Netanyahu said he would reach across the aisle to invite an array of parties to join 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. "As early as this evening I will begin working to form the widest possible government."
Nearly 67 percent of Israel's 5.5 million eligible voters took part, more than in previous elections — apparently giving boosts to the centrists, especially Lapid's new "Yesh Atid" or "There is a future" party.