TEL AVIV: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared best placed to form a governing coalition on Wednesday (Apr 10) after high-stakes Israeli elections, exit polls showed, but remained in a tight race with his main rival as votes were being counted.
Both Netanyahu and ex-military chief Benny Gantz claimed victory after initial exit surveys were released by Israel's three main television stations following the closure of polling venues on Tuesday night.
Two updated exit polls early Wednesday put Netanyahu's Likud ahead of Gantz's Blue and White by one seat. A third poll showed the opposite, with Blue and White holding a one-seat advantage.
Both parties would in any case fall far short of a majority and be forced to form a coalition.
All three exit polls showed Netanyahu more likely to be able to do so with smaller rightwing parties allied to him in the 120-seat parliament.
Exit polls have proven to be unreliable in past Israeli elections and final official results were not expected until later Wednesday.
With some 64 per cent of the vote counted, Likud had 27.59 per cent compared to Blue and White's 26.04 per cent, official results showed.
Addressing cheering supporters who waived Israeli flags at an event hall in Tel Aviv, Gantz called it an "historic day."
"The president must give us the task of forming the next government since we are the biggest party," he said after initial exit polls.
Netanyahu spoke later and declared himself the winner of a fifth term in office.
As he walked onto the stage to chanting crowds, he planted a kiss on the lips of his wife Sara before dramatically wiping lipstick from his face.
"It will be a rightwing government, but I will be prime minister for all," he said.
The vote had long been expected to be close and lead to frantic negotiations to form a coalition, even with Netanyahu facing potential corruption charges.
“THINGS CAN CHANGE”
"Things can change, but in any case the rightwing bloc won," Meshi Sivani, 52 and wearing a Likud t-shirt, said at Netanyahu's post-election party.
Shushan Levi, 61, called Gantz's performance an "enormous victory for an alliance so new."
"Once he announced he was entering politics, I followed him," he said at Blue and White's party.
"He was my commander in the army 40 years ago."
Gantz, a newcomer to politics, mounted a strong challenge to the veteran prime minister by brandishing his security credentials while pledging to undo damage he says Netanyahu has inflicted on the country with divisive politics.
The election was in many ways a referendum on the 69-year-old premier who has built a reputation as guarantor of the country's security and economic growth, but whose populism and alleged corruption have left many ready for change.
He engaged in populist rhetoric that critics said amounted to the demonisation of Arab Israelis and others.
Netanyahu faced further criticism on election day when members of his Likud party brought small cameras into polling stations in Arab areas.
Arab politicians called it an attempt at intimidation, while Netanyahu said cameras would prevent fraud.
True to form, Netanyahu issued a deeply controversial pledge only three days before the election, saying he planned to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank should he win.
Extending Israeli sovereignty on a large-scale in the West Bank could be the death knell to already fading hopes for a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
It is a move long-sought by Israel's far-right.
“NO TO PEACE”
Netanyahu sought to portray himself as Israel's essential statesman in the run-up to the vote and highlighted his bond with US President Donald Trump.
He spoke of Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and of Israel's claim of sovereignty over the annexed Golan Heights.
He also used Trump-like tactics, calling the corruption investigations a "witch hunt" and denouncing journalists covering them.
On Tuesday, he continually warned Likud was at risk of losing over what he said was low turnout among supporters, claims widely seen as a bid to motivate rightwing voters.
By 8pm (1am the next time, Singapore time), overall turnout was 61.3 per cent compared to 62.4 per cent at the same time in 2015 elections.
Gantz, a 59-year-old former paratrooper who has formed a centrist alliance, has invoked the corruption allegations against the premier to make his case that it is time for him to go.
He has called Netanyahu's annexation pledge an "irresponsible" bid for votes.
Gantz says he favours a "globally backed peace agreement" with Israel holding on to the large West Bank settlement blocs. He opposes unilateral moves.
He has sought to overcome Netanyahu's experience by allying with two other former military chiefs and ex-finance minister Yair Lapid to form his Blue and White alliance.
Should Netanyahu win a fifth term, he will be on track to surpass founding father David Ben-Gurion as Israel's longest-serving prime minister later this year.
He has been premier for a total of more than 13 years.
If he does triumph, "King Bibi," as some have called him, also faces the prospect of becoming the first sitting prime minister to be indicted.
The attorney-general has announced he intends to indict Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust pending an upcoming hearing.