Israel's election - LIVE REPORT

Mohammed Abbas and AFP reporters in Israel
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Confetti falls in front of a poster of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as supporters of his Likud party wait for election results

Confetti falls in front of a poster of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as supporters of his Likud party wait for election results (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

Tel Aviv (AFP) - 21:05 GMT - AFP IS NOW CLOSING THIS LIVE REPORT on Israeli's dramatic national elections, which have seen incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bounce back to draw level with his main challenger according to early exit polls.

Earlier polls saw his Likud party trailing the opposition Zionist Union, but Netanyahu reached out to his right-wing voter base by promising not to allow a Palestinian state on his watch, and to continue building settlements on land Palestinians want for a future state.

Still, Israeli politics is famously hard to predict, and with vote counts due to trickle in throughout the night and a ruling coalition yet to be formed, there is no guarantee Netanyahu will remain in power.

21:05 GMT - Netanyahu hails 'victory' - Netanyahu is jubilant in his first tweet since polls closed.

"Against all odds: a great victory for the Likud. A major victory for the people of Israel!"

20:35 GMT - Vote count - Results are expected to be announced throughout the night as polling stations finish their counting, but coalition calculations are expected to begin right away.

20:29 GMT - Likud 'celebratory' - Jeremy Wimpfheimer of Likud's English-language campaign tells the BBC: "We're all feeling a celebratory mood now."

However, although he is confident Netanyahu will remain prime minister, "Israeli politics has taught us that... there's no 100 percent certainty."

Photos are circulating on social media showing celebrations at Likud campaign HQ.

20:07 GMT - Neck-and-neck - Figures published by public Channel 1 and private Channel 10 television both give Likud and the Zionist Union 27 seats each in the 120-member parliament.

A third poll by private Channel 2 gives Likud a one-seat lead over the Zionist Union, with the ruling party taking 28 seats in the Knesset.

20:04 GMT - ARAB JOINT LIST TAKES 3RD PLACE IN ISRAEL VOTE: EXIT POLLS

20:02 GMT - ISRAEL'S LIKUD, ZIONIST UNION NECK-AND-NECK: EXIT POLLS

- Too close to call -

19:53 GMT - Upbeat Herzog supporter - Bouzaglo Raz, 18, wearing a blue T-shirt with a portrait of Herzog, says he has followed Herzog all day and is enthusiastic.

"I was going to vote for him anyway, but here, he has completely convinced me. He was very calm, completely convinced of victory, not stressed at all, like his critics are saying. He is going to do what he says, not like Bibi."

19:49 GMT - Netanyahu's future - Hazan says whatever happens "I think that Netanyahu will remain the leader of our party. He will be like Churchill, go into opposition and will return in force".

Winning fewer than 20 seats would be "terrible", adds Hazan. "Twenty-four to 25 would not be bad."

19:47 GMT - Likud atmosphere - Eli Hazan, advisor to the Likud campaign, tells AFP's Daphne Rousseau: "The atmosphere is really tense at Likud because we really do not know who will win tonight. Netanyahu is fighting for the survival of the state of Israel, of his party, and of himself, in that order. "

19:38 GMT - Last-minute plea - Netanyahu tweets: "Less than an hour until polls close. Please get friends & family out to vote! This election is critically important."

19:12 GMT - Wrangling ahead - With polling nearly over, eyes are turning to the myriad power-sharing permutations that have typically characterised elections in Israel, where no one party has ever won an outright majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

There are 25 parties running in the election, and after polls close, a Knesset member nominated by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has up to 42 days to form a government.

18:47 GMT - US speech - Opinions are divided about whether Netanyahu's speech to the US Congress earlier this month helped or harmed his chances in the election.

Polls immediately after the speech, in which the Israeli prime minister urged the United States not to agree a nuclear with Iran, showed a modest bounce for Likud, and gave Netanyahu a high-profile platform from which to display his uncompromising security and diplomatic credentials.

Herzog and other critics of the move say he harmed Israeli security by antagonising US President Barack Obama, who has staked his reputation on a deal with Iran, and by making support for Israel a more partisan issue given Republican and Democratic divisions over dealing with Iran.

18:10 GMT - Herzog on settlements - Relations between Israel and the Palestinians have taken a back seat in the election, with some voters saying they see little difference between Netanyahu and main challenger Herzog on the issue.

However, Herzog has pledged not to expand settlements beyond the existing main settlement blocks, while Netanyahu has thrown red meat to his right-wing supporters by promising to continue to expand settlements in areas Palestinians want for a future state.

18:09 GMT - War of words - With less than two hours to go before polls close, the war of words between Israeli leader Netanyahu and main challenger Herzog ratched up a notch.

Netanyahu accused Herzog of "making an agreement" with the Arab Joint List, while Herzog said Netanyahu's "panic is embarrassing".

- Tensions -

18:08 GMT - All quiet at Likud HQ - Two hours before the ballots close, the Likud headquarters is empty of activists, with only a bunch of bored journalists and security officials milling around, some of them taking selfies and chatting, AFP’s Daphne Rousseau reports.

18:06 GMT - 'No' to Netanyahu: Branson - British tycoon Richard Branson has urged Israeli voters not to vote for Netanyahu.

"Hope Israeli voters see thru Netanyahu's actions: putting his interests before a diplomatic solution for Iran & world," Branson tweeted.

17:59 GMT - Netanyahu's appeal - Netanyahu has many detractors, but for others his appeal lies in his tough-talking, uncompromising stance on security, whether on Iran or on Israel's Arab neighbours.

As much of the Middle East convulses following the Arab Spring, and as Iranian influence extends its reach across the region, Netanyahu is seen by many as a bulwark against Islamic extremism and Iranian ambitions to wipe Israel off the map.

17:59 GMT - 'Only Bibi will do' - "Israel has serious problems, and only a right-wing leader can handle them," a religious voter called Yehoshua tells AFP's John Davison in Jerusalem.

"The only prime minister who can do this is Bibi," he says, using Netanyahu's nickname.

17:56 GMT - Unbridled capitalism - On Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard, where the mass protests of 2011 began over the high cost of living, Moshe Allali says his main worry is making ends meet.

"I voted for Bougie (Herzog) because he will act on social issues," he tells AFP’s Delphine Matthieussent, saying he spends more than a third of his salary on rent.

"In terms of diplomacy and the conflict with the Palestinians, the Zionist Union and Netanyahu are the same thing. Until the last elections, I have always voted Likud but now I've started to have enough of Bibi's unbridled capitalism.”

17:50 GMT - Economy vs security - While the rest of the world has viewed the Israeli election through the prism of long-running disputes over land between Israelis and the Palestinians, within Israel many are squarely focused on the economy.

Young Israelis complain of not being able to afford a home and spending a large part of their income on rent and rising grocery costs, grievances that triggered protests involving hundreds of thousands of people across Israel in 2011.

- Election issues -

17:46 GMT - 'Netanyahu era over' - Writing in influential left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz, Barak Ravid declares the Netanyahu era "over" even if Likud wins.

"Netanyahu's physical departure from the political arena would only be postponed for a year or two, and the result of the next election would only be a tougher, more profound loss," he said.

17:28 GMT - Likud-Zionist tie-up? - Just hours before the polls opened, Herzog running mate and Zionist Union co-leader Tzipi Livni dropped her plans for a stint as prime minister under a rotation agreement with Herzog.

The move was widely construed by analysts as paving the way for a possible tie-up between Likud and the Zionist Union, set to emerge with the two biggest chunks of seats

Herzog has already ruled out a coalition with the Joint List, which comprises mainly Arab voting blocs.

17:27 GMT - Netanayhu furious - Netanyahu responded angrily to the ruling banning the press conference he had planned to hold.

"The only one who they decided to forbid speaking is me -- the prime minister from the Likud," he said.

"No one will silence me."

17:19 GMT - PM 'panicky' - Analysts and commentators have labelled Netanyahu "panicky" amid a blitz of appeals to the Israeli right, including a pledge never to allow a Palestinian state and an admission that some settlement-building was a strategic move to squeeze Palestinians out of Jerusalem.

Israel has grown more polarised between left and right, religious and secular under Netanyahu's rule, analysts say, making broad appeals to the centre ground more difficult.

17:07 GMT - The Arab vote - In an unprecedented development for Israeli elections, traditionally disparate and apathetic Arab voting blocs have united in a single party, the Joint List. The group also includes the Jewish-Arab communist party Hadash.

The party, headed by 40-year-old Muslim attorney Ayman Odeh, is currently polling in third place behind Likud and the Zionist Union, potentially giving the bloc a kingmaker role.

16:55 GMT - Netanyahu conference banned - Netanyahu called a press conference with just hours to go before the polls close, but the move was blocked by Israel's election committee, the Times of Israel reports.

The press conference could be seen as an opportunity to campaign, which is banned on election day, the Times of Israel said.

16:51 GMT - Election holiday - AFP reporter Laurent Lozano says tens of thousands of Israelis have taken the opportunity of a sunny election day public holiday to visit parks and the beach.

On the beaches of Tel Aviv, people continued to talk politics on the sand, Lozano said.

16:43 GMT - Likud trailing - The last polls published on Friday indicated a narrow win for the centre-left Zionist Union, with the outcome likely to determine the prospects for new Middle East peace talks and Israel's troubled relations with its US ally.

However, even if the Zionist Union wins the most seats, Netanyahu could yet cling to power by forming a larger coalition.

- Opinion polls -

16:34 GMT - Herzog history - Herzog comes from one of Israel's most prominent families - his is the son of a former president and his grandfather was Israel's first Ashkenazi chief rabbi.

A lawyer by profession, the 54-year-old has struggled to dispel accusations that he lacks charisma, and has reportedly taken voice lessons to remedy his high-pitched delivery. He has also reportedly urged people not to his nickname, "Bougie".

16:31 GMT - Herzog on two-state solution - Opposition leader Isaac Herzog tells Newsweek magazine he is "utterly serious" about a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

"I firmly believe that creating a Palestinian state is in (the) best interests of Israel and I will promote this concept on terms that benefit Israel and its citizens and assure their security," he said.

16:24 GMT - Poll facts - About 5.8 million people are eligible to vote in Tuesday's election, with 25 parties in the race for the Knesset's 120 seats.

Polling stations opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT), and voters have until 10:00 pm (2000 GMT) to cast their ballots. Nine hours into the voting, turnout stood at 45.4 percent, down slightly from the figure at the same time during the 2013 election.

16:17 GMT - Norris for Netanyahu - US action movie star Chuck Norris, who has filmed three movies in Israel, has backed Netanyahu in an online video.

He praises Netanyahu as a "strong leader" of "courage and vision".

To view the video, click here: http://bit.ly/1FwaNr0

16:10 GMT - Peace process - The vote is seen by many analysts as a referendum on Netanyahu's rule, under which the peace process with the Palestinians has stagnated and ties with essential ally the United States have frayed.

He steered Israel out of the 2009 economic recesssion relatively unscathed, although economic inequality has widened under his watch, a development his opponents are exploiting.

- Netanyahu 'referendum' -

16:03 GMT - Controversial comments - Netanyahu has tried to rally right-wing voters by telling them "Arabs are coming out in droves", triggering accusations of racism for singling out Israeli citizens by their ethnicity.

The comment is one of several in recent days in which Netanyahu has tried to bolster right-wing support, including a pledge not to allow the emergence of a Palestinian state should he be re-elected.

15:52 GMT - WELCOME TO AFP'S LIVE REPORT on the Israeli elections, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is battling for political survival after dissolving his government in December and calling for early elections.

Focusing on security and the threat from Iran, Netanyahu's Likud party has in recent polls trailed challenger Isaac Herzog and his Zionist Union coalition, which has pledged to address widening economic inequality in Israeli society.