Jerusalem: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party had a lead of less than two per cent over the centrist Blue and White coalition in early results from Israel's general elections, officials said on Wednesday.
With 18.3 per cent of the ballots counted, Likud had 29.15 per cent of the vote, compared with 25.27 per cent for Blue and White, the Central Electoral Committee said.
Both Netanyahu, seeking a fifth term, and the leader of Blue and White, retired Gen. Benny Gantz, claimed victory based on the first exit polls published after the voting ended at 10.00 pm Tuesday.
While all of the exit polls except that of Channel 13 television -- which deemed the race too close to call -- point to an advantage for Blue and White, the ostensible lead was so narrow that it remained unclear whether Gantz would be able to form a government, Efe reported.
Blue and White was set to win 33 seats in the 120-seat parliament, compared with 27 for Likud, according to i24 television.
The poll cited by Channel 12 television showed Blue and White with a margin of 37-33 over Likud, and public television network Kan said Gantz's advantage was 37-36.
Kan reports that several parties, such as Education Minister Naftali Bennett's New Right, the far-right Zehut and the centrist Gesher, fell short of the 3.25 per cent minimum required to enter parliament.
"We won! The Israeli public has had their say!" Blue and White said. "These elections have a clear winner and a clear loser. Netanyahu promised 40 seats and lost. The president can see the picture and should call on the winner to form the next government. There is no other option!"
The prime minister, however, proclaimed a triumph for the right.
"The right-wing bloc led by Likud won a clear victory. I thank the citizens of Israel for your trust. I will start assembling a right-wing government with our natural partners this very evening," Netanyahu said on Twitter.
Members and supporters of Blue and White began gathering at the alliance's campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv as soon as the polls closed.
"We are very happy. It's a clear victory. It's very difficult to create a coalition in Israel, but these results prove that the country expressed very clearly that it doesn't want Benjamin Netanyahu," Blue and White partisan Guy Levy told Efe amid celebrations.
A Likud candidate for parliament, Uzi Dayan, said that his party was satisfied with the preliminary numbers.
"The good news is that we have all the ingredients to create a new coalition government," he told Efe at Likud campaign central in Tel Aviv.