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Netanyahu pulls ahead but remains one seat shy of governing majority, exit poll suggests

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By Saphora Smith and Paul Goldman and Lawahez Jabari with NBC News World News
Election Campaign In Israel
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud party rally in Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv, Israel, on Feb. 29.   -   Copyright  Artur Widak
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surged ahead of his chief political rival but looked set to fall one seat short of a governing majority in the country's third election in under 12 months onMonday, according to exit polling.

An Israeli exit poll by Channel 12 predicted that Netanyahu's center-right Likud party would win 37 seats, while its chief rival, the centrist Blue and White party, would capture 33.

Both Netanyahu's right-wing bloc and Blue and White's centrist and left-wing bloc were set to fall short of the 61 seats needed to form a governing coalition in the 120-seat parliament, known as the Knesset.

However, the right-wing bloc looked set to win 60 seats — one seat short of the threshold. The center-left bloc was predicted to capture 54. No Israeli party has ever won an outright majority, which forces the larger parties to form blocs with smaller allies.

The country's unprecedented third electiononce again turned into a neck-and-neck race between Netanyahu and his chief political rival, former Israeli chief of staff Benny Gantz. In September, Gantz's Blue and White came in first, with 33 seats, trailed by Netanyahu's Likud, with 32. In April, the parties tied with 35 seats each.

As Israel's longest-serving prime minister and a close ally of President Donald Trump, Netanyahu has campaigned on his experience, diplomatic know-how and his record on security.

Gantz, a relative political novice, has campaigned on a promise of clean government and social harmony but has also stressed his security credentials as a former military chief. He has also argued that Netanyhau is unfit to serve under the shadow of a looming trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

The vote Monday comes two weeks before Netanyahu is due to appear in court to face the charges, for which he faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of bribery and a maximum 3-year term for fraud and breach of trust, according to legal experts. Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoingand said he is the victim of a "witch hunt."

Winning a majority could allow Netanyahu to convince parliament to grant him legal immunity from the corruption charges for which he was indicted in November.

Both Netanyahu and Gantz have embraced the Trump administration's Mideast peace planthat would create a conditional path to statehood for Palestinians, while allowing Israel to extend its sovereignty to the vast majority of its settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Gantz, however, has said he opposes any unilateral solutions to the conflict and that any decision should be reached in negotiation with the Palestinians. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the publication of the Mideast peace plan, Netanyahu pursued a vote to extend Israeli sovereignty over the areas seemingly without consulting the Palestinians who have emphatically rejected the deal.