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A Bedouin man casts his ballot as Israelis vote in a parliamentary election, at a polling station in the city of Rahat in Israel's southern Negev Desert. Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

Israeli exit polls show tight race

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main challenger, former military chief Benny Gantz, were locked in a neck and neck race Tuesday as exit polls showed no clear winner in an election that was seen as a referendum on the long-serving leader.

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. Still, the results appeared to be a setback for Netanyahu as they failed to give him the decisive victory he had sought. The 69-year-old prime minister’s fate is clouded by a series of corruption investigations.

Two Israeli TV stations showed Gantz’s Blue and White Party with a narrow lead over the Likud. Channel 12 TV had Blue and White with 37 seats to Likud’s 33 seats, while Kan TV put Blue and White ahead 37-36. Channel 13 had the two parties deadlocked with 36 seats apiece.

Because both parties are far short of a majority in the 120-seat parliament, they would have to search for smaller ideological allies to cobble together a majority.

WATCH: Netanyahu faces tough political battle in competitive Israeli election

The Kan and Channel 13 polls projected Likud and its hard-line allies controlling a slight majority of seats, while a Channel 12 showed them with 60 seats apiece.

Early on Wednesday, Gantz addressed a raucous crowd. “Elections have losers and elections have winners. And we are the winners,” he told supporters.

He vowed to change the tone of Israel’s divisive political system and “be the prime minister of everyone, not just the ones who voted for me.”

Claiming to represent the largest party, Gantz urged President Reuven Rivlin to give him the opportunity to form the next government. As president, Rivlin is responsible for choosing the prime minister after consulting with party leaders and deciding who has the best chance of cobbling together a coalition.

Netanyahu, who was set to address his supporters later Wednesday, said in a statement that his right-wing bloc won a “clear victory.”

Israeli exit polls are notoriously imprecise, meaning the final results could still swing in either direction. Official results weren’t expected until Wednesday morning.

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

“We’ve had elections before where he didn’t know the results but here it is even messier,” he said.

The final results will depend on the performance of several small parties, including the Arab Balad party and the ultranationalist “New Right,” that were on the cusp of winning the needed 3.25% of the votes to enter parliament. If any of them fail to cross the threshold, the makeup of the next coalition could be dramatically affected.

The election included several other surprises. Exit polls all projected the iconic Labor party, which ruled the country for its first 30 years, tumbling to single digits in the parliament.

Zehut, an iconoclastic party that combined an ultranationalist ideology with libertarian economic positions and calls for the legalization of marijuana, had appeared poised to emerge as the Cinderella story of the election. But the exit polls showed it falling short and not entering parliament.

Clouded by looming corruption indictments, Netanyahu is seeking a fourth consecutive term and a fifth overall, which would make him Israel’s longest-serving leader, surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion.

The election has emerged as a referendum on his 13 years in power, with the existential questions facing Israel rarely being discussed in the campaign.

Netanyahu has been the dominant force in Israeli politics for two decades. His campaign has focused heavily on his friendship with President Donald Trump and his success in cultivating new allies, such as China, India and Brazil.

But the corruption scandals have created some voter fatigue, and in recent days Netanyahu has vowed to annex Jewish West Bank settlements if re-elected — a prospect that could doom already-slim hopes of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel, which he has wavered on.

In Gantz, he encountered the rare opponent who can match his security credentials. Along with two other former military chiefs on his ticket, Gantz has attacked Netanyahu for failing to halt rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. The telegenic Gantz, who has been vague on key policy fronts, has presented himself as a clean, scandal-free alternative to Netanyahu.

As Tuesday wore on, Netanyahu delivered increasingly impassioned pleas for support via Facebook.

In videos, he repeated his signature warning that if supporters failed to vote for Likud, they’d wake up to a “leftist” government led by Gantz. Netanyahu said such a scenario is backed by the centrist party’s “secret deal” with Arab factions.

His tactics, however, had the effect of siphoning seats from his nationalist allies.

Arab turnout was seen as a major issue.

Netanyahu’s campaign against Arab politicians, together with the new alliance with anti-Arab extremists and the passage of last year’s contentious nation-state law, which enshrined Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people alone, deepened calls for an election boycott in Arab communities.

The Palestinian issue has been largely sidelined in a campaign that has been long on scandal and short on substance. While Gantz has expressed an openness to resume contacts with the Palestinians, his positions were vague and did not express support for Palestinian independence.

Palestinian official Saeb Erekat lamented that the Israelis voted to maintain “the status quo.”

“They want their occupation to be endless,” he said.

Even if re-elected, Netanyahu could have a difficult time governing. Some of his allies have indicated they will no longer back him if formal charges are filed.

Israel’s attorney general has recommended indicting him on bribery and breach of trust charges in three separate cases. Rivals have also begun to question a deal in which Netanyahu reportedly earned $4 million on a German submarine sale to Egypt by owning shares in one of the German manufacturer’s suppliers. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and says the accusations are part of a liberal media’s orchestrated witch hunt.

Heller reported from Tel Aviv.

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