By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main challenger Benny Gantz claimed victory in Israel's election on Tuesday, with several exit polls giving the veteran right-wing leader an advantage in forming a coalition government.
Netanyahu, in power consecutively since 2009, is fighting for his political survival as he seeks a fifth term. He faces possible indictment in three corruption cases, in which the right-wing Likud party leader has denied any wrongdoing.
Exit polls on two of Israel's three main TV channels showed Gantz's centrist Blue and White Party won slightly more seats than Likud in the 120-member parliament, while a third survey forecast a tie.
Though neither party captured a ruling majority in the Knesset, according to the exit polls, two of the three surveys put Netanyahu in a stronger position to form a coalition government with the help of right-wing factions.
Some political analysts cautioned it was too early to determine the outcome, with many hours to go before a final tally is in.
If he wins, Netanyahu, 69, will be on track to be the longest-serving prime minister in Israel's 71-year history. Gantz, 59, a former military chief, is a political novice.
Channel 13 forecast Netanyahu could piece together a ruling bloc controlling 66 seats compared with 54 for a Blue and White-led coalition of center-left and left-wing parties.
Public TV Kan put the ratio at 64 to 56 in Likud's favor, while Channel 12 predicted a tie, at 60 seats each.
"The rightist bloc led by Likud has won a clear victory," Netanyahu said in a statement. "I will begin forming a right-wing government with our natural partners this very night."
Addressing a Blue and White rally in Tel Aviv, Gantz said exit polls showed the party had won the most seats and it should therefore be given the chance, by Israel's president, to form the next government.
"We are the victors," Gantz said. "We want to thank Benjamin Netanyahu for his service to the nation."
Israeli exit polls have been wrong in the past, however. Ofer Zalzberg, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said Likud and Blue and White would have to learn the fate of smaller parties to know whether they had garnered enough support for a coalition.
"Netanyahu is more likely to establish another right-wing government, but we will have to wait and see," he said.
NETANYAHU HIGHLIGHTS TRUMP TIES
During the campaign, the rival parties accused each other of corruption, fostering bigotry and being soft on security.
Netanyahu highlighted his close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, who delighted Israelis and angered Palestinians by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital in 2017 and moving the American Embassy to the holy city last May.
In a rare turn during the race toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu further alarmed Palestinians by promising to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank if re-elected. Palestinians seek a state there and in the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
During the campaign, Gantz said a government under his stewardship would pursue peace, but stopped short of committing to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Commenting on the Israeli election, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told reporters in the West Bank: "We hope they choose the just path, in the right direction, to reach out for peace."
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in 2014.
A close result in the election would put smaller parties in a powerful position, turning marginal political figures into kingmakers.
Once the votes are tallied, President Reuven Rivlin will ask parties that have won parliamentary seats who they support for prime minister. He will then pick a party leader to try to form a coalition, giving the candidate 28 days to do so, with a two-week extension if needed.
One factor may be the turnout of voters from Israel's 21 percent Arab minority. Many were angered by Israel's nation-state law, passed in 2018, which declared that only Jews have the right of self-determination in the country. Netanyahu supported the legislation.
Netanyahu's party sent monitors equipped with body cameras to a number of polling stations with Arab constituents on election day. Arab politicians condemned the move as voter intimidation.
Voting in Tel Aviv, businessman Dedi Cohen, 44, said he supported Gantz. "I considered voting for Bibi (Netanyahu). Life isn't bad: I've been around the world and seen that Israel is a good place in terms of the economy and security.
"But still, a change is in order. After 13 years, it's time for some ventilation up top," Cohen said.
Backing Netanyahu, Avi Gur, 65, a lecturer at Ariel University in a settlement in the West Bank, said he was "very excited".
"I hope that rightism will win," he said
(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub in Rosh Ha'ayin, Ron Bousso and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad in Haifa, Rahaf Ruby, Stephen Farrell, Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Sonya Hepinstall)