Netanyahu, Gantz supporters in waiting game as poll results trickle in

Alexandra Vardi and Steve Weizmann
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At Netanyahu's election party, exit poll results - which fell short of Netanyahu's hopes - were not shown on the screens

At Netanyahu's election party, exit poll results - which fell short of Netanyahu's hopes - were not shown on the screens (AFP Photo/Menahem KAHANA)

Tel Aviv (AFP) - Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, his main challenger in the country's general election, were forced into a waiting game on Wednesday as exit polls showed a tight race.

At Gantz's event in the Israeli commercial capital Tel Aviv beginning Tuesday night after voting ended, the mood was initially one of quiet excitement.

Several hundred young activists, some wearing t-shirts bearing the slogan of Gantz's centrist Blue and White coalition, waited impatiently for their leaders to emerge.

Exit poll results flashed over large screens and created a stir of excitement as they showed the ex-military chief still had a chance to become the country's next prime minister and end Netanyahu's long tenure in office -- a total of more than 13 years.

"We don't want to say that it is won, but we very much hope so," an emotional 22-year-old volunteer Rotem Mizrahi said.

But as the official vote count ground slowly on, Gantz called for patience.

"Naturally we will wait for the final results. But as it appears, we were up to the task and no less important, we did it our way," Gantz told the crowd, adding he would seek to form a broad unity government.

After the speeches the Israeli national anthem rang out through the hall.

- 'Stable government' -

A couple of miles away at Netanyahu's election party, rank and file members of his Likud were not admitted to the building until after 11:00 pm, an hour after the first exit polls.

Those results -- which fell short of Netanyahu's hopes -- were not shown on the screens.

In the end doors were opened and a couple of hundred supporters entered.

They chanted "Bibi King of Israel," using a common nickname for the Israeli leader.

Others sat down exhausted and checked their phones, election signs reading "Netanyahu strong right" discarded in empty chairs as dance music played.

Netanyahu finally emerged around 3:00 am (0000 GMT), a full five hours after the exit polls.

Excitement suddenly bristled through the crowd, with people standing on seats to see the man many view as a hero.

Netanyahu started by hugging his ministers while the crowd chanted slogans against him joining a national unity government, preferring a right-wing formation similar to the current coalition.

He was introduced as the "prime minister and the next prime minister."

The 69-year-old, whose voice was hoarse, showed no sign he was ready to give up his tenure as Israel's longest-serving prime minister anytime soon.

"At this time, for the sake of all these goals, Israel needs a strong government, a stable government, a Zionist government. A government that is committed to Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people," he said.