Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party are in a battle for political survival after exit polls following Tuesday’s election showed the race was too close to call and the Israeli leader’s decade-long grip on power was slipping. A revised exit poll released by Israel’s public broadcaster Kan early on Wednesday projected that Blue and White would win 32 seats and Likud 31 in the 120-seat Knesset. The votes will be counted through the night. But it could take weeks of discussion before the next government and prime minister emerge.
Mr Netanyahu’s main election challenger, centrist Benny Gantz, said on Wednesday it appeared from the exit polls that Israel’s longest-serving leader was defeated, adding only official results would tell.
Reports suggest in his own speech to his right-wing Likud party, Mr Netanyahu made no claim of victory or concession of defeat, he said he was awaiting a vote tally.
His appearance in the dead of night at Likud election headquarters was a far cry from his bold declaration five months ago he had won a close election.
The Prime Minister’s failure to form a government after the April ballot led to Tuesday’s new election.
Mr Gantz sounded more optimistic when he spoke to supporters a little earlier.
He said: “Of course we’ll wait for the real results, but it seems we have accomplished our mission. The unity and reconciliation is ahead of us.”
Surveys by Israeli television stations first predicted Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party 30-33 seats, while Mr Gatz’s Blue and White party were predicted 32-34 seats.
Speaking to supporters early on Wednesday, Mr Netanyahu said: “We’ve all been through a difficult election campaign.
“We are still waiting for the actual results but one thing is clear. The state of Israel is at a historical point, we faced great opportunities and great challenges.”
Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Yisrael Beitenu, has called for a national unity government in light of the exit poll results.
Mr Gantz, a former armed forces chief, beamed with confidence as he told a rally of his Blue and White Party it appeared “we fulfilled our mission”.
He pledged to work towards the formation of a unity government.
The final election results can take more than a week but partial results are published by the Knesset as the vote-counting proceeds.
This means a clearer picture will likely emerge within a day before the final tally.
By 6am about a quarter of the votes had been counted.
Revised surveys by Israeli TV stations, several hours after polls closed, gave Likud 30 to 33 of Parliament’s 120 seats, a slight drop from previous forecasts, versus 32 to 34 for Blue and White.
At a first glance, neither has enough support for a governing coalition of 61 legislators.
When did voting close?
Voting in the Israel election ended at 10pm local time (8pm BST) today, having begun at 7am local time.
After voting ends, exit polls are published and negotiations over forming a new government are expected to begin.
President Reuven Rivlin will then ask the party leader most likely to muster together a coalition of more than 60 members of parliament.
After being asked, that leader will then have 28 days to form a government – with a small extension possible.
However, if the leader fails to form a coalition government, the President can ask another party leader to try.
Parties will be seeking a 61-seat majority to be able to lead a coalition government.
Who are the contenders in the Israel election?
There is currently strong competition between Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, and Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party.
Eyes will also be on Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, as they could become integral in the formation of a coalition.
However, for both frontrunning parties, they could struggle to form a majority coalition with smaller allied parties – which may result in the forcing of the two major parties into a unity government.
Smaller parties must surpass the minnimum requirement of 3.25 percent to enter parliament.
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has faced criticism for his plans to annex the Jordan valley in the West Bank if he wins the general election.
Israel’s attorney general has also recommended pressing criminal charges against the current Prime Minister in three corruption cases, with a pre-trial hearing scheduled next month.
It is thought Mr Netanyahu will pass legislation allowing him immunity from prosecution should he be re-elected for a fifth term.