Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared victory after a tight national election appeared to give him the upper hand in forming the country’s next coalition government.
In a statement released on Twitter, Mr Netanyahu says that “against all odds” his Likud Party and the nationalist camp secured a “great victory”.
Initial exit polls showed Likud deadlocked with the centre-left Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog. But the results indicated that Mr Netanyahu will have an easier time cobbling together a majority coalition with hard-line and religious allies.
Mr Netanyahu said he had already begun to call potential partners.
Exit polls conducted by the country’s three major TV stations gave mixed results.
Two polls showed the parties deadlocked with 27 seats each, and a third gave Likud a slight lead of 28-27.
All showed the centrist newcomer Moshe Kahlon with enough seats to determine who will be the next prime minister.
The campaign had been focused on economic issues surrounding the high cost of living, rather than fears of a nuclear-armed Iran or the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Mr Netanyahu appealed to his hard-line base at the last minute, saying a Palestinian state would not be established if he was elected to a fourth term, claiming it would be quickly taken over by Islamist extremists. His remarks could further sour ties with the United States.
Mr Netanyahu’s main challenger was Isaac Herzog of the centre-left Zionist Union.
Voters were electing a 120-member parliament, casting ballots for a party list.
However, it typically takes weeks of negotiations for a governing coalition to be formed and to decide who will be Prime Minister.
Mr Herzog’s party had been polling slightly ahead of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud, but neither political camp had a clear majority.
Mr Netanyahu’s pledge to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state marked a reversal of long-standing promises to the United States and were seen as a last-ditch effort to appeal to hard-line voters as he fought for his political survival in a close race.
He claimed that any state established alongside Israel would become a base for people who “will attack us with rockets”.
“Who wants such a thing?” he said in a phone interview with Israel TV’s Channel 10 after casting his ballot.
Mr Herzog has said he would revive peace efforts with the Palestinians, repair ties with the US and reduce the growing gaps between rich and poor.
“Whoever wants to follow Bibi’s (Netanyahu’s) path of despair and disappointment will vote for him,” Mr Herzog said after casting his vote.
“But whoever wants change, hope, and really a better future for Israel, will vote the Zionist Camp led by me.”
Israelis cast ballots for a party list, rather than individual candidates.
Mr Netanyahu has governed for the past six years and has long been the most dominant personality in Israeli politics.
In his interview with Channel 10, he ruled out a coalition with Mr Herzog and said that instead he would seek an alliance with the ultra-national Jewish Home party, which also opposes Palestinian statehood.