Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: REUTERS/Amir Cohen
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Jerusalem – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main challenger Benny Gantz were locked in a tight race in the country's general election after polls closed on Tuesday, exit surveys showed.

Three separate exit polls carried by Israeli television stations showed Netanyahu's Likud and Gantz's centrist Blue and White alliance with between 31 and 34 parliament seats each out of 120.

Former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman's nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, which could play a kingmaker role, could win between eight and 10 seats, according to the polls.

If the exit polls are reasonably accurate – and they have in the past been off-base – either Netanyahu or Gantz will face tough negotiations to form a government.

The results prompted initial cheers at Blue and White's post-election party in Tel Aviv, where they were shown on large screens, before doubts began to set in.

"We have an advantage, but I see that we are dependent on Lieberman," said supporter Dina Margoli.

The stakes could not be much higher for the 69-year-old Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving prime minister, who is facing possible corruption charges in the weeks ahead.

He spent the day warning he was on the verge of losing if his supporters did not turn out to vote, and made appearances at Jerusalem's main market and its central bus station, wielding a megaphone to exhort the crowds.

He repeatedly warned, as he has in previous elections, that left-wing and Arab voters were showing up in large numbers to vote him out, appearing on Facebook live to do so.

"President (Donald) Trump said on Monday  that the elections will be tight," Netanyahu said when voting on Tuesday morning, referring to comments by his staunch ally who called the polls "50/50".

"I can guarantee you this morning that they are very tight."

Gantz voted in his hometown of Rosh Haayin near Tel Aviv and called on the country to reject corruption and "extremism".

"We want new hope. We are voting today for change," Gantz said after voting with his wife, Revital.

"We will succeed in bringing hope. We will succeed in bringing change, without corruption and without extremism, all together."

Later he visited a shopping mall in the northern city of Haifa and addressed the public through a megaphone on the beach in Tel Aviv.

Fears of election fatigue appeared not to have materialised.

Turnout was at 63.7%, official figures showed.

 Immunity?

Netanyahu, who has been prime minister for more than 13 years, suffered one of the biggest defeats of his political career following the April vote.

His Likud, along with its right-wing and religious allies, won a majority which led President Reuven Rivlin to task him with forming a government.

But following weeks of discussions, Netanyahu failed, opting for an unprecedented second election rather than risk Rivlin choosing someone else.

Many believe that if he wins, Netanyahu could seek to have parliament grant him immunity from prosecution ahead of a possible corruption indictment in the weeks ahead.

Recognising the stakes, Netanyahu spent the final days of the campaign seeking to appeal to nationalists – key to his re-election bid – and to boost turnout among his base.

Those efforts included a controversial pledge to annex the Jordan Valley, which makes up a third of the occupied West Bank.

He 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 Trump.

 'Normal again' 

Gantz has presented himself as an honourable alternative.

He repeatedly spoke of Netanyahu's willingness to form a coalition with far-right parties that could help him secure immunity.

Gantz says his alliance, which includes three former armed forces chiefs of staff, wants a unity government that the vast majority of Israelis would support.

A campaign by Lieberman's nationalist Yisrael Beitenu to "make Israel normal again" appeared to have resonated with voters.

The staunch secularist has long campaigned against what he sees as the undue clout of ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, which he accuses of seeking to impose Jewish religious law on Israel's secular population.

Lieberman has demanded legislation to make military service mandatory for the ultra-Orthodox as for other Jewish Israelis -- a demand he refused to drop after April polls, eventually blocking Netanyahu's efforts to form a coalition.

It is not clear he will endorse Netanyahu as prime minister again, which could be enough for Rivlin to allow Gantz to try to form a government.

And if exit polls showing Israel's newly reunified Arab parties with between 11 and 13 seats are accurate, they could block Netanyahu from continuing as prime minister by recommending Gantz.

AFP