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The election in Israel is too close to call after the first exit



TEL AVIV – Not even the Prime Minister

Benjamin Netanyahu

nor did its main rival command a majority after the Israelis voted on Tuesday, exit polls suggested possibly opening a period of uncertainty for the next Israeli government as the conflict escalates between Iran and its closest US ally.

n. Netanyahu Likud Party and Blue and White Party

Benny Ganz,

the former country's security chief, each had 32 seats, according to Israeli Channel 11, the public broadcaster.

The poll shows that Mr Netanyahu's right bloc has a 56-seat edge over 54 left-center-Arab bloc seats under Mr Gantz. The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, has 120 members, which means 61 votes are needed for a majority.

The results remain fluid. Israel's television forecasts were wrong in the past, first predicting in the last elections in April that Mr. Ganz was ahead of the results for Mr. Netanyahu.

Benny Ganz, leader of the Blue and White Party, in Rosh Hain, Israel, on Tuesday.


Photo:

Kobe Wolf / Bloomberg News

If the impasse handles the end results, it could fall to the former Secretary of Defense

Avigdor Lieberman

to determine the next prime minister. This year, he broke away from Mr Netanyahu's right-wing coalition and called on the blue and white and Likud to form a unity government.

n. The Israeli Betin Party of Lieberman was scheduled to receive 10 seats in Channel 11's initial poll, potentially giving him the opportunity to deny Mr Netanyahu the opportunity to receive 61 votes.

"We have only one option, a broad, liberal government for national unity," Mr. Lieberman said in a speech after the polls closed. He called on the President of Israel

Raven Rivlin

to invite Messer Gantt and Netanyahu to an informal talk Friday.

A clear picture may not emerge until early Wednesday, when the results will show which of the smaller parties has met the threshold of 3.25% of votes to enter the Knesset. Even with the end results, it may take weeks of negotiations to emerge victorious.

The election posed a severe challenge to Mr Netanyahu after more than a decade in power, as he faced a widening divide between Israel's religious groups and his secular society. These differences threatened to overshadow the prime minister's efforts to emphasize his perceived advantage over security.

n. Netanyahu, who is already Israel's longest serving prime minister, has sought far-right and religious parties to secure a new term. During the four-month campaign, he cracked down on his security documents, highlighting his ability to defend Israel and the military operations his government conducted in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gantt, a centrist, tried to gather voters who were tired of the long reign of the prime minister. A popular military chief under Mr. Netanyahu from 2011 to 2015, Mr. Gantz promised a strict security policy, saying he would deter Hamas from missile attacks in the Gaza Strip.

The elections are coming at a particularly intense time in the Middle East. President

goat

counts on Mr. Netanyahu as a close ally in Washington's confrontational stance on Iran. Tensions around Iran intensify after the weekend, after an attack on the Saudi Arabian oil industry, a US attack blames Iran.

Although Mr. Netanyahu and President Trump have established a close relationship, the U.S. commander-in-chief. Earlier this year, they described Mr Ganz as a good man. Asked about Monday's election, Mr Trump declined to support any of the candidates and said the race seemed close.

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The result of the vote will almost certainly be relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr Netanyahu has promised to annex parts of the West Bank if re-elected, and Mr Trump says he plans to launch a long-awaited peace proposal for the post-election conflict.

The elections are the second this year, after a vote in April, Mr Netanyahu and his allies cannot form a majority government in the Knesset. The prime minister failed because he failed to gather the secular and religious parties he relied on to form a coalition, including Mr Lieberman's party.

For many Israelis, Tuesday's re-election turned into a referendum on how much influence religion should have on their daily lives.

Masters. Lieberman and Gantz pledged to form a secular government and rejoiced at voters who opposed the powerful role of Israeli religious parties in the current one. Mr Netanyahu relies on smaller religious parties to form governments in the past, allowing them to maintain control over marriage, divorce and compliance with Shabbat, shutting down businesses and stopping public transport on Friday and Saturday.

The leadership contest may be reduced to the decision of President Rivlin, a largely ceremonial head of state whose most significant constitutional task is to determine who has the strongest mandate to form a government.

The first bite is usually given to the leader who receives the most support from the various parties. With exit polls showing Mr Lieberman with eight to 10 seats, he could put either Mr Netanyahu or Mr Ganz above the threshold.

Mr. Rivlin's cabinet said Tuesday it will begin consultations as soon as possible in an effort to quickly form a new government and avoid a third election this year.

Initial polls sparked a storm of speculation about how Mr Netanyahu would maneuver to stay in power and whether Mr Gantz could actually muster a majority to form a government.

Senior Likud members have said that their party will not deposit Mr Netanyahu as leader, but they are ready to join a unity government with the blue and white parties.

"There will be no deposit with Netanyahu. We all stand behind him, "said Miri Regev, Likud's senior minister in an interview with Channel 12.

Obstacles remain high for such an agreement, with Blue and White lawmakers keeping their promise not to allow Mr Netanyahu to heads the government.

"We will not sit in any government of unity in which Netanyahu is in charge of it," said Blue and White lawmaker Avi Nisenkorn in Israel's Channel 11.

Joint List, Union of Most Representative Parties Israeli Arab citizens looked to increase their presence to become the third largest party in the Knesset. The Arab Party has never sat in the Israeli government with the intention of avoiding liaison with Israeli military campaigns against the Palestinians.

If Likud and the Blue and Whites together form a government, Ayman Ode, head of the Joint List, will become the first Arab citizen of Israel to lead the opposition. This position traditionally carries regular meetings with the Prime Minister and classified security briefings.

"Perhaps for the first time we will lead the opposition, a respected position. I believe this is an important opportunity, "said Mr Ode.

"Netanyahu will cease to be prime minister due to the population he incites," he added.

Some voters said that Mr. Netanyahu's replacement was their primary motivation for voting.

David Cohen, 69, from the Israeli village of Maale Adumim, stated that he was the head of his Likud Party branch, but in recent years had made a song for Mr Netanyahu. He said he voted for Mr Lieberman.

"I am afraid of what the Haredi do in this country and what Bibi gave them," he said, referring to the ultra-Orthodox population of Israel and using a nickname for Mr. . Netanyahu.

Write to Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com

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