JERUSALEM—Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main challenger Benny Gantz claimed victory in Israel’s election on Tuesday, with several exit polls giving the veteran right-wing leader an advantage in forming a coalition government.
Netanyahu, in power consecutively since 2009, is fighting for his political survival. He faces possible indictment in three corruption cases, in which the right-wing Likud party leader has denied any wrongdoing.
If he wins, Netanyahu, 69, will become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s 71-year history this summer.
Exit polls on two of Israel’s three main TV channels showed that main challenger Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party won slightly more seats that Likud in the 120-member parliament, while a third survey forecast a tie.
Though neither party captured a ruling majority in the Knesset, according to the exit polls, the surveys put Netanyahu in a stronger position to form a coalition government with the help of right-wing factions.
Some political analysts, however, cautioned it was too early to determine the outcome, with many hours to go before a final tally is in.
Channel 13 forecast Netanyahu could piece together a ruling bloc controlling 66 seats compared with 54 for a Blue and White-led coalition of center-left and left-wing parties.
Public TV Kan put the ratio at 64 to 56 in Likud’s favor, while Channel 12 predicted a tie, at 60 seats each.
“The rightist bloc led by Likud has won a clear victory,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “I will begin forming a right-wing government with our natural partner this very night.”
A spokesman for Gantz’s party declared: “We won. The Israeli public has had their say.”
Ofer Zalzberg, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said Likud and Blue and White would have to learn the fate of smaller parties to know whether they had garnered enough support for a coalition.
“Netanyahu is more likely to establish another right-wing government, but we will have to wait and see,” he said.
During the campaign, the rival parties accused each other of corruption, fostering bigotry and being soft on security.
Netanyahu highlighted his close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, who delighted Israelis and angered Palestinians by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 and moving the American Embassy to the holy city last May.
A close result in the election would put smaller parties in a powerful position, even turning marginal political figures into kingmakers.
Once the votes are tallied, President Reuven Rivlin will ask parties that have won parliamentary seats who they support for prime minister. He will then pick a party leader to try to form a coalition, giving the candidate 28 days to do so, with a two-week extension if needed.
Voting in Tel Aviv, businessman Dedi Cohen, 44, said he supported Gantz. “I considered voting for Bibi (Netanyahu). Life isn’t bad: I’ve been around the world and seen that Israel is a good place in terms of the economy and security.
“But still, a change is in order. After 13 years, it’s time for some ventilation up top,” added Cohen.
Backing Netanyahu, Avi Gur, 65, a lecturer at Ariel University in a settlement in the West Bank, said he was “very excited”.
“I hope that rightism will win,” he said.
By Jeffrey Heller