Netanyahu, Gantz both claim victory in Israeli polls

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main challenger Benny Gantz both claimed victory after Israel’s general elections on Tuesday as exit polls showed the two were neck and neck.

The exit polls from Israel’s three main television stations appeared to show Netanyahu better placed to form a coalition with the help of smaller right-wing parties, but the final outcome was far from clear.

Final official results were not expected until early on Wednesday.

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.

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.

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