Exit polls after Israel’s second general election in five months predict the result is too close to call. PM Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party is projected to win 30 to 33 seats and the Centrist Blue and White alliance of former military chief Benny Gantz is projected to win between 32 to 34 seats. Yisrael Beiteinu party leader Avigdor Lieberman may end up being a kingmaker.
Netanyahu called the snap vote after failing to form a coalition government after having suffered one of the biggest defeats of his political career following the April vote. Negotiations on the formation of a new coalition are expected to start as soon as the preliminary results come on Wednesday morning.
Speaking to supporters early on Wednesday, 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.' said Gantz, sounding optimistic. 'Of course we'll wait for the real results, but it seems we have accomplished our mission. Unity and reconciliation is ahead of us', he added.
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As the exit polls were released, there was a muted response at Likud's election night headquarters in Tel Aviv. Hundreds of chairs for party supporters remained empty, as activists were kept outside the hall and leaders digested the numbers.
Recognising the stakes, Netanyahu spent the final days of the campaign seeking to appeal to right-wing nationalists, the key to his re-election bid -- and to boost turnout among his base. Those efforts have included a controversial pledge to annex the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank, a third of the territory. He has issued unfounded warnings that the vote could be stolen by fraud in Arab communities, leading critics to accuse him of racism. But Netanyahu has also highlighted the country's growing economy and his relationships with world leaders such as US President Donald Trump. He has tried to label his main opponents "weak" and "leftist" despite their security credentials. "This is the choice that is open to you: their left-wing government or a strong right-wing government led by me," he said Monday. Gantz has campaigned by presenting himself as an honourable alternative. He has repeatedly spoken of Netanyahu's willingness to form a coalition with far-right parties that could help him seek immunity. Gantz says his alliance, which includes three former military chiefs of staff, wants a unity government that the vast majority of Israelis would support.
(With PTI inputs)