Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chances of retaining power appear uncertain as results from the country’s fourth election in two years offer few realistic ways for the five time premier to form a coalition.

As results trickled in on Wednesday, Netanyahu has only one path to a governing coalition — an unlikely alliance that would require a rightwing bloc, with openly anti-Arab members, to sit in partnership with an Islamist party. His rivals, who ran without a candidate in a disorderly camp committed to ousting Netanyahu, would also struggle to form a ruling coalition.

That leaves Israelis facing months of fractious coalition talks and a possible fifth election to break the stalemate that has been the hallmark of the country’s politics for the past two years. Final results are expected this weekend. If nobody succeeds in forming a government in the coming months the country will go to the polls again.

With 90 per cent of the vote counted, Netanyahu’s Likud has a commanding lead over its biggest rival, the Yesh Atid (There is A Future) party. But his bloc of rightwing parties is two seats short of a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, even if he succeeds in enticing a former ally, former defence minister Naftali Bennett, into joining him.

That has left Mansour Abbas, a 46-year-old dentist from Israel’s Arab-dominated north, with five seats in parliament and hundreds of missed calls on his mobile phone, as the unlikely kingmaker in an election defined by a single issue, the future of Netanyahu’s political career.

The impasse presents the Jewish state’s Zionist leadership with a historically fraught choice: risk another round of elections or work out a deal with an Islamist party dedicated to protecting conservative Muslim lifestyles.

Netanyahu is now trapped by a political paradigm he himself created, said Yohanan Plesner, a former lawmaker, citing the premier’s vilification of Yitzhak Rabin’s 1992 minority government, which counted on an Arab party for support, as traitorous to the Zionist cause. In later elections, Netanyahu described some Arab-Israeli leaders as supporters of terrorism.

“That the parties that represented the Arab vote were not considered legitimate partners for building a coalition is part of Netanyahu’s 'achievement’,” said Plesner, now president of the Israel Democracy Institute. “Netanyahu continued from [the Rabin government] on with a very clear strategy of delegitimising the Arab minority.”

The prime minister campaigned on his success in re-opening Israel’s economy on the back of the world’s most aggressive coronavirus vaccination drive. His rivals, which included defectors from Likud and a constellation of leftwing groups, used Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial to make a case for his removal. Indicted last year for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, he has dismissed the charges as politically motivated.

Abbas’s Ra’am party, which has not declared support for Netanyahu or his rivals, gambled that staying above this fray would bring it outsize influence in coalition talks. Abbas has already signalled that his party is open to all options, including supporting a minority government from outside a coalition. “We have to be very careful, but we also need to wait. This is a big responsibility,” Ra’am leader Abbas told Anas radio in Nazareth on Wednesday.

For his part, the premier stopped short of declaring outright victory but said just before 3am on Wednesday morning that “we achieved something huge tonight, we’ve led the Likud to become the largest party in Israel, by a very large margin”. He also vowed to avoid a fifth election even as four elections have shown voters who want to oust him evenly balanced by those who backed him for a record sixth premiership.

Israeli election 2021 as of Mar 24 1900GMT

It remained equally unclear if the committed anti-Netanyahu parties would be able to muster a coalition — their camp includes a six-member rightwing party of former Likud leaders who have been openly averse to a government that includes any Arab parties.

“As of this moment, Netanyahu does not have 61 seats,” said Yair Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid. He added that he had already started talks within the bloc. “We will do everything possible to establish a sane government in the state of Israel.”

Benny Gantz, the wartime general who challenged Netanyahu in three previous elections, was punished by voters who felt betrayed by his decision last year to join a coalition government as defence minister, with Netanyahu as premier. The results showed his Blue and White party winning fewer than seven or eight seats.

The Joint List of Arab parties, which originally counted Ra’am in its ranks, split up when Abbas broke away from its policy of staunch opposition to Netanyahu. The rest of the List received fewer than eight seats, down from 15 in the last election. Abbas hinted that List could get back together, further strengthening his hand in coalition talks.

“The door is still open to the Joint List,” he told the radio station. “We are not enemies.” The Ra’am party seeks protection for conservative Muslim lifestyles, and more support for social services, healthcare and crime prevention in Israel’s Arab-dominated north.