Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on a clearer path to victory in Israel's general election after updated exit polls showed him gaining ground on his main rival, despite corruption allegations against him.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in power consecutively since 2009, faces possible indictment in three graft cases and has denied wrongdoing in all three. (April 9, 2019)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in power consecutively since 2009, faces possible indictment in three graft cases and has denied wrongdoing in all three. (April 9, 2019) (AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared victory in national elections as exit polls show his Likud party gaining ground on its main rival.

Addressing a jubilant gathering of supporters early on Wednesday, Netanyahu praised them for an "almost inconceivable achievement."

Exit polls put Likud and the rival Blue and White parties in a tight race. But recent projections appear to be giving Likud a slight lead and in a stronger position to form a majority coalition in the 120-seat parliament.

Partial Israeli election results showed Netanyahu's Likud winning 38 seats versus 35 seats for centrist Blue and White alliance, Haaretz newspaper reported.

In a speech repeatedly interrupted by cheering supporters, Netanyahu said that "I was very moved that the nation of Israel once again entrusted me for the fifth time, and with even greater trust."

He vowed to establish a right-wing nationalist government.

With a victory, Netanyahu would capture a fourth consecutive term and fifth overall, which this summer will make him Israel's longest-ever serving leader. Perhaps more crucially, re-election will give him an important boost as he braces for the likelihood of criminal charges in a series of corruption scandals.

Official results are expected later Wednesday.

Netanyahu announced Tuesday: "A right-wing bloc led by the Likud party won a clear victory. I thank the citizens of Israel for the trust."

Gantz and centrist politician Yair Lapid, also from the Blue and White party, earlier declared: "We won! The Israeli public has had their say!"

Exit polls

The exit polls from Israel's three main television stations appeared to show Netanyahu better placed to form a coalition with the help of smaller right-wing parties, but the final outcome was far from clear.

The vote was expected to be close and likely lead to frantic negotiations to form a coalition once results are in, with opinion polls having shown Netanyahu best placed to do so.

Polls closed at 1900 GMT in most areas, with 6.3 million Israelis eligible to cast ballots. 

Opinion polls have shown Netanyahu best placed to cobble together an alliance, despite corruption allegations against him.

Ex-military chief Benny Gantz has mounted a strong challenge to the veteran prime minister by brandishing his security credentials while pledging to undo damage he says Netanyahu has inflicted on the country with divisive politics.

"I'm happy to stand for the good of the citizens on a new path," Gantz said after casting his ballot in his hometown of Rosh Haayin.

TRT World's Fatih Yavuz reports.

'Choose well'

Netanyahu voted in Jerusalem and urged Israelis to "choose well".

"This is a sacred act, the essence of democracy, and we should be thankful for that," he said.

The election was in many ways a referendum on the 69-year-old who has built a reputation as guarantor of the country's security and economic growth, but whose populism and alleged corruption have left many ready for change.

He has engaged in populist rhetoric that critics say amounts to the demonisation of Arab Israelis and others.

True to form, Netanyahu made a deeply controversial pledge only three days before the election, saying he planned to annex settlements in the occupied West Bank in the event of victory. 

Extending Israeli sovereignty on a large-scale in the West Bank could be the death knell to already fading hopes for a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

It is a move long-sought by Israel's far-right.

'Need for change'

Netanyahu has also sought to portray himself as Israel's essential statesman.

He met with his close ally US President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro in the run-up to the vote.

He has highlighted Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and of Israel's claim to sovereignty over the Golan Heights, while also saying the US leader is aware of his annexation plans.

"Who else can do this? Who can do this? Come on. Honestly," Netanyahu said in an interview on Sunday with local news site Arutz Sheva.

"Who can stand in front of the world? Who can stand in front of the American Congress? Who can move public opinion in that direction?"

At the same time, he has used Trump-like tactics, calling the corruption investigations a "witch hunt" and denouncing journalists covering them.

Gantz, a 59-year-old former paratrooper who has formed a centrist alliance to challenge Netanyahu, has invoked the corruption allegations against the premier to make his case that it is time for a change.

He has called Netanyahu's annexation pledge an "irresponsible" bid for right-wing votes.

As for his position on the issue, Gantz says he favours a "globally backed peace agreement" that sees Israel hold on to the large settlement blocs in the West Bank and maintain security control over the territory.

He opposes any unilateral moves.

"There's a need for change and an opportunity for change," Gantz told Israel's army radio on Monday.

"Israel needs to choose a direction of unification, connection and hope – or of extremity."

Gantz has sought to overcome Netanyahu's experience and achievements by allying with two other former military chiefs of staff and ex-finance minister Yair Lapid to form the Blue and White alliance.


Opinion polls have given Netanyahu's Likud and Blue and White a similar number of seats in the 120-seat parliament.

Under those polls, both would fall far short of an outright majority – with around 30 seats each – and would need to pull together a coalition.

If polling trends hold, Netanyahu would be best placed to build a coalition thanks to smaller right-wing parties close to him.

But there have been repeated warnings about opinion polls' historical unreliability and the fact that many voters say they remained undecided.

Should Netanyahu win, he will be on track to surpass founding father David Ben-Gurion as Israel's longest-serving prime minister later this year.

He has been premier for a total of more than 13 years, entrenching himself so firmly at the top that some have labelled him "King Bibi," using his nickname since childhood.

But if he does triumph, he faces the prospect of becoming the first sitting prime minister to be indicted.

The attorney general has announced he intends to indict Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust pending an upcoming hearing.

The premier is not required to step down if indicted; only if he is convicted with all appeals exhausted.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies