Netanyahu calls on Gantz to form a unity government together
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) faces a strong challenge from retired general Benny Gantz and his Blue and White alliance in Tuesday's polls AFP / Oded Balilty, JACK GUEZ

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on his main challenger Benny Gantz Thursday to form a unity government together, a major development after deadlocked election results put his long tenure in office at risk.

Netanyahu, in a video message, said he preferred to form a right-wing coalition, but the results showed it was not possible.

The stark admission followed Israel's general election on Tuesday that has threatened Netanyahu's status as the country's longest-serving prime minister as he faces possible corruption charges in the weeks ahead.

"During the elections, I called for the establishment of a right-wing government," Netanyahu said in a video message.

"But unfortunately the election results show that this is not possible."

He went on to call on Gantz to form a "broad unity government today."

Gantz had not yet responded publicly, but he has repeatedly called for a unity government.

Following Netanyahu's message, at a memorial for the anniversary of the death of ex-president Shimon Peres that both attended, the two men shook hands.

AFP / GIL COHEN-MAGEN Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz did not immediate respond to Netanyahu's call for a unity government but the two men exchanged greetings at a Jerusalem memorial service for Shimon Peres

It is unclear however if Gantz, who has in the past spoken of not wanting to serve in a government with an indicted prime minister, would accept such a government with Netanyahu remaining as premier.

The ex-military chief, who has mounted his challenge to Netanyahu without any prior political experience, was due to speak to journalists at 1:30 pm (1030 GMT).

- Second election this year -

Netanyahu was seeking to seize momentum by announcing his intention to form a unity government and head off attempts to oust him.

Blue and White, a centrist alliance, has in the past sought to appeal to members of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud to abandon him and form a unity government with it.

But there has so far been no signal that any Likud members would be willing to do that, and in his speech following the closure of Tuesday's polls Gantz made no such demand.

Official results have not been announced, but Israeli media have reported that Blue and White has 33 parliamentary seats and Likud 31 out of 120 with 97 percent of the votes counted.

AFP / EMMANUEL DUNAND Gantz's slim lead over Netanyahu in the unofficial results reported so far means he too has no obvious path to a majority coalition other than a unity government

Gantz's slim lead, however, gave no obvious path for either party to form a majority coalition.

Ex-defence minister Avigdor Lieberman has emerged as a potential kingmaker, with the reported results showing his nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party with eight seats.

Israel's newly reunified Arab parties, running together under the Joint List alliance, have also emerged as an important force, with the reported results showing them with 13 seats -- the third-largest.

That could allow them to block Netanyahu from continuing on as prime minister if they decided to break with precedent and endorse Gantz.

Israel's Arab parties have traditionally not endorsed anyone for prime minister.

After complete, official results are in, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will hold consultations with all parties voted into parliament and then choose someone to try to form a government.

It will be the second time he has done so since April.

Netanyahu suffered one of the biggest defeats of his political career after April elections.

His Likud along with its right-wing and religious allies won a majority, but he failed to form a coalition and opted for a second election rather than risk having Rivlin choose someone else to try.