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story.lead_photo.caption Blue and White part supporters cheer at the party's campaign headquarters after polls for Israel's general elections closed, in Tel Aviv, Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main challenger, former military chief Benny Gantz, both declared victory in Tuesday's election, citing exit polls that showed mixed results.

Official results are expected today.

Two Israeli TV stations showed Gantz's Blue and White Party with a narrow lead over Netanyahu's Likud party. Channel 12 TV had Blue and White with 37 seats to Likud's 33 seats, while Kan TV put Blue and White ahead 37-36. Channel 13 had the two parties deadlocked with 36 seats apiece.

Despite the mixed reports, each side declared victory.

"Elections have losers, and elections have winners. And we are the winners," Gantz said at a victory rally early today.

He vowed to change the tone of Israel's divisive political system and "be the prime minister of everyone, not just the ones who voted for me."

The Blue and White Party urged the Israeli president, who is tasked with selecting the prime minister, to "call on the winner to form the next government. There is no other option!"

Netanyahu said his right-wing bloc won a "clear victory."

"It's a night of tremendous victory," Netanyahu said at his victory rally. "I was very moved that the nation of Israel once again entrusted me for the fifth time, and with an even greater trust."

He said he had already begun talking to fellow right-wing and religious parties about forming a new coalition.

"I want to make it clear, it will be a right-wing government, but I intend to be the prime minister of all Israeli citizens, right or left, Jews and non-Jews alike," he said.

Yohanan Plesner, a former lawmaker and head of the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute, called the close and conflicting numbers "an unprecedented situation."

"We've had elections before where he didn't know the results, but here it is even messier," he said.

Several parties, including the Arab Balad list and the ultranationalist New Right, were hoping to win the needed 3.25 percent of the votes to enter parliament. The fate of these small parties could play a key role in determining who becomes prime minister.

Clouded by looming corruption indictments, Netanyahu is seeking a fourth consecutive term and a fifth overall, which would make him Israel's longest-serving leader, surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion.

Netanyahu's campaign focused heavily on his friendship with President Donald Trump and his success in cultivating new allies, such as China, India and Brazil.

But in recent days Netanyahu vowed to annex Jewish West Bank settlements if re-elected -- a prospect that could doom already-slim hopes of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel, an issue that Netanyahu has wavered on.

In Gantz, Netanyahu encountered an opponent who can match his security credentials. Along with two other former military chiefs on his ticket, Gantz has criticized Netanyahu for failing to halt rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Gantz, who has been vague on key policy fronts, has presented himself as a clean, scandal-free alternative to Netanyahu.

The Palestinian issue was largely sidelined during the campaign. While Gantz expressed an openness to resuming contacts with the Palestinians, his positions were vague and did not express support for Palestinian independence.

Palestinian official Saeb Erekat lamented that the Israelis voted to maintain "the status quo."

"They want their occupation to be endless," he said.

A Section on 04/10/2019

Print Headline: Netanyahu, rival vie to lead Israel


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