190410 Netanyahu
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to his supporters after polls for Israel's general elections closed in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. Image Credit: AP

Tel Aviv: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared best placed to form a governing coalition Wednesday after high-stakes Israeli elections, exit polls showed, but remained in a tight race with his main rival as votes were being counted.

Both Netanyahu and ex-military chief Benny Gantz claimed victory after initial exit surveys were released by Israel’s three main television stations following the closure of polling venues on Tuesday night.

Two updated exit polls early Wednesday put Netanyahu’s Likud ahead of Gantz’s Blue and White by one seat. A third poll showed the opposite, with Blue and White holding a one-seat advantage.

Both parties would in any case fall far short of a majority and be forced to form a coalition.

All three exit polls showed Netanyahu more likely to be able to do so with smaller rightwing parties allied to him in the 120-seat parliament.

Exit polls have proven to be unreliable in past Israeli elections and final official results were not expected until later Wednesday.

With some 64 per cent of the vote counted, Likud had 27.59 per cent compared to Blue and White’s 26.04 per cent, official results showed.

Addressing cheering supporters who waived Israeli flags at an event hall in Tel Aviv, Gantz called it an “historic day.”

“The president must give us the task of forming the next government since we are the biggest party,” he said after initial exit polls.

Netanyahu spoke later and declared himself the winner of a fifth term in office.

As he walked onto the stage to chanting crowds, he planted a kiss on the lips of his wife Sara before dramatically wiping lipstick from his face.

“It will be a rightwing government, but I will be prime minister for all,” he said.

The vote had long been expected to be close and lead to frantic negotiations to form a coalition, even with Netanyahu facing potential corruption charges.