By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to win a ruling majority in an election that produced a virtual tie between his right-wing bloc and a center-left grouping that would be led by former military chief Benny Gantz.
The outcome, according to almost complete results published on Wednesday, dealt a new blow to Israel's longest-serving leader, who was already weakened by the inability to put together an administration after an inconclusive election in April.
But with coalition-building again key to forming a government, it could be days or even weeks before it becomes clear whether the wily politician hailed by supporters as "King Bibi" has been dethroned after a decade in power.
The campaigns run by Netanyahu and Gantz pointed to only narrow differences on many important issues, and an end to the Netanyahu era would be unlikely to bring about significant changes in policy on relations with the United States, the regional struggle against Iran or the Palestinian conflict.
With Israeli media reporting more than 90 percent of votes counted in Tuesday's election, the bloc led by Netanyahu's Likud party was more or less even with a likely grouping headed by Gantz's centrist Blue and White party.
A Likud-led bloc looked poised to control 55 of parliament's 120 seats, with 56 going to a center-left alliance - in both cases falling short of a majority government of 61 lawmakers.
The ballot's wildcard, former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman, emerged as a likely kingmaker as head of the secular-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, projected to capture nine seats.
Lieberman has been pushing for a unity government comprised of the biggest parties. He declined to back Netanyahu's bid to form a narrow right-wing and religious coalition after the April election, bringing about Tuesday's unprecedented repeat vote.
NO SPEECH AT UNITED NATIONS
With Israeli politics in flux, Netanyahu canceled his annual speech at the U.N. General Assembly next week, a spokesman said, a visit that might have provided an opportunity for a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. Netanyahu highlighted his close ties with Trump in his election campaign.
Trump told reporters in Los Angeles on Wednesday that he had not yet spoken with Netanyahu about the election, adding "we'll see what happens". The Trump administration plans soon to release an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that may prove a dead letter: The Palestinians have rejected it in advance as biased.
Once the last votes are tallied, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will consult with leaders of parties that won parliamentary representation about whom to tap to try to form a government. The nominee would then have up to 42 days to do so.
Addressing Likud legislators on Wednesday, Netanyahu, 69, said he had met the leaders of right-wing factions, his traditional allies, and they had pledged to work in unison with him to form the next government under his stewardship.
A Likud spokesman said the right-wing bloc would approach "all Zionist parties" in the next few days to try to negotiate an alliance, and that Netanyahu did not want another election.
Gantz, a political newcomer, has not ruled out a unity administration with Likud. But he has said Blue and White would not join such a government if it included Netanyahu, citing looming corruption charges against the prime minister, who has denied any wrongdoing.
In a further complication, Lieberman has rejected any alliance that includes ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties - members of Netanyahu's current caretaker government. Lieberman has sought to limit religious influence on everyday life in Israel.
Speaking after meeting his allies, Netanyahu again took aim at what he has termed "anti-Zionist" Arab parties, saying his right-wing grouping would make "every effort" to prevent the formation of a "dangerous government" dependent on Arab support.
He was referring to a possible Gantz-led coalition reliant on the tacit backing of Arab members of parliament, who have accused Netanyahu of racism towards their community, which comprises around 20 percent of Israel's population.
A joint list of Arab parties put on a strong showing in Tuesday's election, winning 13 seats. But no Arab party has ever formally joined a coalition government in Israel.
Three corruption investigations and the Israeli attorney general's announced intention to charge Netanyahu with fraud and bribery have also chipped away at his seeming invincibility.
Netanyahu can argue at a pre-trial hearing in October against indictment. But an election loss could leave him more at risk of prosecution in the graft cases, without the shield of parliamentary immunity that his current political allies had promised to seek for him.
(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller, Dan Williams, Maayan Lubell and Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem, Akram El-Satarri in Gaza and Jeff Mason in Los Angeles; Editing by Timothy Heritage/Mark Heinrich; ((firstname.lastname@example.org; +97226322202)