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Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party and rival party appear locked in close race

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By F. Brinley Bruton and Paul Goldman and Reuters and Associated Press  with NBC News World News
Image: An Israeli soldier votes during the general election in Ashkelon on
An Israeli soldier votes during the general election in Ashkelon on April 9, 2019.   -   Copyright  Tsafrir Abayov

Israeli exit polls indicate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud and the rival Blue and White party are locked in a race that is too close to call.

Channels 12 and Kan TV gave the Blue and White party, headed by former military chief Benny Gantz, a narrow lead over the Likud, while Channel 10 TV showed them in a tie in Tuesday's vote.

The channels also gave different breakdowns for possible coalitions, with two stations giving Netanyahu's right-wing bloc a slight parliamentary majority while Channel 12 had them tied at 60 seats apiece.

With neither side having a clear advantage, they will have to wait for official results to come in overnight.

If Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party succeeds in forming a parliamentary majority and he again serves as prime minister, he would embark on his fourth consecutive and fifth overall term, making him the longest-serving leader in the country's history.

The election has been widely seen as a referendum on the scandal-plagued Netanyahu, who in the waning days of the campaign pledged to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank if re-elected.

Netanyahu was severely tested by Benny Gantz, a former head of the Israeli Defense Forces and a political novice who formed the Blue and White Party, a coalition of centrists and former military officers, on a promise of clean government and social harmony.

Gantz, a retired three-star general, sent a jolt through Israeli politics this year when he partnered with centrist politician and former television host Yair Lapid to form the new party. If elected, Gantz would lead the government for two-and-a-half years and Lapid the remainder of the four-year term.

Gantz ran on a platform of clean government and social harmony, and hit out at Netanyahu over a series of scandals swirling around him. Netanyahu tried to portray Gantz as inexperienced and weak.

"This is a day of hope, a day of unity," Gantz, 59, said earlier Tuesday as he cast his vote in Rosh HaAyin near Tel Aviv. "I look into everyone's eyes and know that we can connect."

"This is truly the essence of democracy," Netanyahu said at a polling station in Jerusalem with his wife, Sara. "With God's help the State of Israel will prevail. Thank you very much. Go to vote.

While exit polls indicate where the main parties stand, building a government is an uncertain and sometimes tortuous process.

Neither Gantz's Blue and White nor Likud are expected to win an outright majority — no Israeli party ever has in the 120-seat Parliament — which means a larger party will have to form a coalition with smaller ones.

More than 40 parties competed in the elections, including ultra-Orthodox religious parties, Arab factions and fringe movements like the Pirate and Simply Love parties. Only a handful are expected to win the 3.25 percent of the vote necessary to break the electoral threshold and earn the minimum four seats in parliament.

Negotiations could take days or even weeks. After final results are released in around 24 hours or so, President Reuven Rivlin will meet with party leaders and select the one he believes is most capable of forming a coalition based on each party's recommendations.

That party, usually but not always the largest faction, then has four weeks to form a coalition. A new government will be given a four-year term, but disagreements between coalition parties often result in early elections.

Ahead of the election, polls showed Gantz's Blue and White in the lead, but Netanyahu — who has led a series of right-wing coalitions — looked more likely to form a coalition. Should neither bloc be able to form a coalition, Israel could face the prospect of a second election in November.

Election Day is a national holiday and Israeli elections tend to have high turnout. The last elections in 2015 saw voter turnout of 72 percent. But Arab voters, who make up 20 percent of the electorate, were expected to boycott the vote amid accusations that Netanyahu was inciting the public against them.

Netanyahu has run a series of right-wing governments that have included religious, far-right and marginal parties. But his recent decision to forge an alliance with a fringe extremist party inspired by an American-born rabbi, Meir Kahane,who advocated a Jewish theocracy and the forced removal of Palestinians, raised alarms among even some Netanyahu allies.

The passage in July of the "nation-state" lawdeclaring that only Israel's Jews had the right of self-determination and stripping Arabic of its designation as an official language alongside Hebrew was also decried by critics who say it institutionalized discrimination.

Serious scandal dogged Netanyahu's run. On Feb. 28, Israel's attorney general recommended indicting Netanyahu on bribery, fraud and breachof trust in three different cases. He has also been caught up in a scandal involving the $2 billion purchase of submarines from a German company. Police have recommended that Netanyahu's personal attorney, who is also his cousin, be indicted on charges of bribery and money laundering, although the prime minister himself is not a suspect.

Netanyahu has called the investigations a "witch hunt."

During the campaign, Netanyahu highlighted his close relationship with President Donald Trump — an especially popular figure in Israel even when compared to decades of close relations between the countries.

Trump has made a series of decisions that have endeared him to Netanyahu, and to many Israeli voters. The U.S.'s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement withIran —which many Israelis see as an existential threat — was a coup for Netanyahu. Then came the decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. And on March 21, Trump recognized Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967.

Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White Party, in Tel Aviv.
Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White Party, in Tel Aviv.Amir Cohen

In addition, Trump's ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is popular among Israeli right-wing voters. He has written articles against a two-state solution and given money to groups supporting Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Netanyahu visited the White House on March 25 — underscoring the relationship. And on Monday, he issued a personal message to Trump after the administration announced it wasdesignating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization.

"Thank you, my dear friend," he said. "Thank you for responding to another important request of mine, which serves the interests of our countries and countries of the region."