Israeli election on course for dead heat

An Israeli Arab man walks past an electoral billboard bearing portraits of Blue and White political alliance leaders Moshe Yaalon Benny Gantz Yair Lapid and Gabi Ashkenazi

Yohanan Plesner, a former lawmaker and head of the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute, called the close and conflicting exit polls "an unprecedented situation".

The centrist Blue and White alliance of former military chief Benny Gantz was projected to win 36 or 37 seats, and the Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu between 33 and 36.

With final results still hours away, both men declared victory, though Netanyahu appeared to have better prospects of forming a coalition with smaller ideological allies.

Israel's incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on course for a record fifth term, election results show.

Rival Gantz, 59, earlier also claimed victory, citing preliminary exit polls that showed his party had won more seats than Likud.

"We won! The Israeli public has had their say!" Gantz said that he recognized the strength of the right-wing bloc and as a democrat he accepts the results but that he will continue to focus on his goals.

Another big victor in this election is Israeli democracy itself.

Both Netanyahu and Gantz claimed victory after the initial exit surveys that gave Blue and White the most seats.

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Nevertheless, key party members said they were confident that Netanyahu would remain Israel's leader as more results rolled in. He said he expected to forge a new coalition with the right-wing parties he called his "natural partners", but that he meant to be "the prime minister of all the citizens of Israel".

When the sun rose this morning, however, it looked like Netanyahu was going to squeak through with a win and the ability to form a coalition government.

Gantz said he favoured a "globally backed peace agreement" with Israel holding on to the large West Bank settlement blocs, adding that he opposed unilateral moves. Speaking to his Likud lawmakers on the day the election was called he said the outgoing government had "outstanding achievements" on which to campaign. For one thing, Netanyahu is immersed in a criminal investigation after Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced plans to indict the prime minister on charges of breach of trust, bribery and fraud. Every government has been a coalition. With around 97 percent of all votes tallied, Likud has secured 26.27 percent of ballots, giving the party 25 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, according to the parliament's website.

After the election, Israel's president will consult with party leaders to determine which coalition is most likely to form a stable government.

Some have speculated that a unity government between Netanyahu and Gantz would help the country heal from a bitter election, and respond to threats from Iran and Hamas. He's touted his close ties to U.S. President Donald Trump, who signed a proclamation recently declaring Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

In a rare turn during the race towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu further alarmed Palestinians by promising to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank if re-elected.

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. He also met with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week and thanked him for returning the remains of an Israeli soldier. Though early campaign polls suggested that a majority of voters wanted to get rid of Benjamin Netanyahu, they failed to do so.

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