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Netanyahu Neck-And-Neck With Rivals In Exit Polls

Initial exit polls from Tuesday’s legislative election in Israel gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an almost imperceptible advantage over his chief rival Isaac Herzog, according to Israeli television channels.

The average of the three leading channels’ polls, according to Brookings Institution expert Natan Sachs, gives Netanyahu’s Likud party an equal number of initial seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, to that held by Herzog’s Zionist Union.

Previous exit polls, before an officially imposed media blackout Friday, had indicated that Zionist Union was several seats ahead of Likud. The sudden closing of the gap between the two frontrunners indicates a last-minute surge in momentum for Netanyahu — and a successful attempt to attract voters away from other right-wing parties.

A day before the election, Netanyahu announced that he would block any Palestinian attempt at statehood, a move some saw as a ploy for support from the base of parties such as Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu. But another neighbor on the right, Bennett’s Jewish Home, seems to have received as many as nine seats in the 120-seat Knesset. (RELATED: On Election Day, Israeli Politicians Continue To Surprise)

Since no party has ever held a 61-seat majority in the Knesset, parties depend upon alliances and coalitions to form a stable government. Jewish Home, with the conservative United Torah Judaism and Shas parties, are almost guaranteed to back Netanyahu.

Herzog’s Zionist Union, on the other hand, faces much shakier prospects at first glance. The Arab parties’ Joint List, which had been seen as a staunch ally for Herzog, would have to fit in an unstable alliance with the centrist Yesh Atid and Kulanu parties. The Joint List is expected to receive 13 seats, putting it in third place overall. (RELATED: How Arabs Might Pick Israel’s Next Prime Minister)

The polls are unofficial and were released by the news networks as soon as voting closed at 10 pm local time. The official results, submitted in hand-sealed envelopes, may take hours or even days to tabulate.

Regardless of the official raw election data, the next step involves careful maneuvering between party leaders’ personalities. Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon, the centrist leaders, both have complex histories with Netanyahu, and will require significant persuasion to back a Likud-led national unity government.

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