• Exit polls show a dead heat in the race between Benjamin Netanyahu, the polarizing, right-wing prime minister, and his main rival, Benny Gantz, a newcomer to electoral politics who is seen as a centrist. Both men claimed victory.
• Official results may not come until early morning Israel time, late tonight in the U.S. It will then be up to President Reuven Rivlin to choose the party leader he believes has the best chance of assembling a parliamentary majority.
• Regardless of who becomes the next prime minister, the election has already proven to be a humbling setback for Mr. Netanyahu, 69, who has built a strong economy, kept the country safe and has been promoted by President Trump. It has also placed Mr. Gantz’s new Blue and White party in the position of the main alternative to the right wing, a spot once held by the Labor party.
• While Mr. Netanyahu appealed primarily to the right, Mr. Gantz, 59, a retired lieutenant general and former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, reached out for allies across the political spectrum. He sought to make Mr. Netanyahu’s expected indictment on corruption charges the main issue.
Exit polls show Netanyahu and Gantz in dead heat; both claim victory
Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz emerged in a dead heat in Tuesday’s parliamentary election, according to preliminary exit polls.
The muddled projected outcome left Israel teetering at a critical juncture between an ever sharper turn to the right or a more moderate reset of the political order.
The exit polls of the three main television channels were sufficiently disparate that both sides claimed victory.
In a head-to-head matchup, two of the polls showed Mr. Gantz’s Blue and White party ahead and a third showed him in a draw with Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party. But including the broader blocs supporting each party, two polls showed the Likud bloc ahead and the third was a draw.
Just after midnight, Mr. Gantz made a triumphant entrance at his party headquarters to the cheers and chants of supporters, and gave a victory speech even though victory was not assured.
Calling it “a historic day,” Mr. Gantz declared, “We are the winners!” and thanked Mr. Netanyahu for his years of service.
Mr. Netanyahu, for his part, claimed a “definite victory” for the right-wing bloc in Parliament. “I thank the citizens of Israel for their trust,” he wrote on Twitter. “I will start by assembling a right-wing government with our natural partners tonight.”
Still, Mr. Gantz’s strong performance against the long-dominant Mr. Netanyahu was a remarkable achievement for a political newcomer, and the mood at Likud headquarters was grim.
“We need to wait for the most important poll, the real election,” Amir Ohana, a member of Parliament, said at Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv.
The results may become clearer as vote counting progresses in the coming hours. It is also possible that the result could still be tipped by the final count, including the votes of soldiers, prisoners and hospital patients, later this week.
Smaller parties could prove decisive
The fate of smaller parties at both ends of the spectrum was unclear and could prove decisive.
The pro-settler New Right party, led by Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, failed to cross the threshold to be seated in Parliament, according to two of the three television networks’ exit polls.
But the third survey showed it with four seats.
“We passed a three-month marathon and the marathon is still going on,” Mr. Bennett told supporters, urging them to keep their spirits up and look to the counting of military ballots. “We have patience, great faith and nerves of steel. We take care of the soldiers, and the soldiers will take care of us.”
At the far left, Raam-Balad, the weaker of two Arab-dominated parties, failed to cross the threshold in two exit polls, but won six seats in the third survey.
If one or both of those parties is able to win seats in the Parliament when all the votes are counted, those extra seats could swing the determination of the winning coalition and thus the next prime minister.
When will we get official results?
The manual ballot counting was expected to continue until at least 3 a.m. Israel time (8 p.m. Eastern), and possibly hours later. By Wednesday morning, the Central Elections Committee should release close-to-final results based on some 99 percent of the polls.
The action will then shift to the official residence of President Reuven Rivlin. He will receive a parade of party representatives over the next few days who will lobby for their choices for the next prime minister. Mr. Rivlin will then ask the candidate he thinks has the best chance of forming a government to do so.
That candidate will have 42 days to try to forge a coalition with the support of at least 61 seats in the 120-seat Parliament.
In most cases, the party with the largest number of seats is given first crack at forming a government. In 2009, Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party won the most votes but failed to build a viable coalition. Mr. Netanyahu, whose Likud party came in second, was tasked with forming the government.
Mr. Netanyahu was already busy on Tuesday night trying to secure recommendations and support from his so-called “natural partners” among the right wing and religious parties.
A caveat on exit polls
The final outcome was likely to be swayed by several small parties that were teetering just above or below the electoral threshold, according to the exit polls. Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of one such party, the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, said it was “too early to draw conclusions.”
The exit polls of the 2015 election serve as a cautionary tale. They anticipated a tie between Likud and the center-left Zionist Union, with most projecting 27 seats for each. In the final count, Likud prevailed with 30 seats and the Zionist Union won only 24.
In another variable on Tuesday, the exit polls may not have fully accounted for what appeared to be a late surge in the number of Arab voters.
The Arab vote headed for historic low
Political analysts said the turnout in Arab areas of Israel, where citizens have become disillusioned with Israeli politics and with their own politicians, appeared to be headed for a historic low.
With turnout lagging and the fate of the election potentially swinging on one or two seats in a coalition, every party was pleading with its voters to race to the polls before it was too late.
But among Arab voters, where a boycott movement appeared to be having a strong effect, the haranguing was especially intense.
“The right is planning to crush the Arab parties, it wants to erase us off the political arena,” Mtanes Shehadeh, a spokesman for the struggling Ram-Balad party, wrote in a WhatsApp message to supporters. “This is Netanyahu’s dream.”
Palestinian groups were critical of the early results. Saeb Erekat, the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization and its chief negotiator, said exit polls suggested that “Israelis have voted to preserve the status quo, they have said ‘no’ to peace and ‘yes’ to the occupation.”
Just days ago, Mr. Netanyahu unexpectedly promised to begin extending Israeli sovereignty over the occupied West Bank if re-elected. The move would probably doom a two-state solution and appeared to be a last-ditch effort to rally his right-wing base.
Mr. Gantz’s Blue and White party has come out against the idea of annexing West Bank settlements, but it has been vague about allowing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Netanyahu’s party places hidden cameras at Arab polls
A boycott campaign wasn’t the only reason for poor turnout among Arab voters. Early Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party acknowledged sending more than 1,000 activists with cameras into polling places in Arab towns.
At least some of the Likud observers concealed the cameras, as online videos showed. Likud said the move was aimed at capturing evidence of any irregularities.
According to Israeli news reports, the Arab party Hadash-Taal filed a complaint, calling it voter intimidation, the police confiscated dozens of the cameras, and the Central Elections Committee’s legal counsel said filming in polling stations was prohibited.
Just before 9 p.m., the left-wing party Meretz, which was counting on Arab support to clear the threshold to be seated in Parliament, appealed to elections officials to keep the polls open in Arab villages an extra hour to allow in any voters who had initially been scared off by the cameras.
How it works
Voters cast ballots for parties, not candidates. Thirty-nine parties are participating. The percentage of the vote determines a party’s number of seats in the Knesset, or Parliament. Any party needs at least 3.25 percent of the vote for a seat.
Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party and Mr. Gantz’s Blue and White alliance are expected to gain more seats than any other group. But each will fall far short of achieving a 61-seat majority on its own, meaning that a new government will almost certainly be formed by a multiparty coalition.
[See our guide to the Israeli elections.]
Likud wins the most seats. Mr. Netanyahu’s party might be able to reach a majority with the help of smaller right-wing parties.
Blue and White wins the most seats. Mr. Gantz and his partners might be able to reach a majority with a combination of smaller parties on the left and right.
Unity government of Likud plus Blue and White. While Mr. Gantz has vowed never to serve in a government led by Mr. Netanyahu, there has been speculation that their parties might negotiate to form a unity government if neither can attain the sufficient number of seats. Such a possibility would increase if some smaller parties needed by Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz fail to make the 3.25 percent threshold.
Any party that wins at least 3.25 percent of the vote gets at least three seats in Parliament, but if parties don’t pass that threshold — and many smaller parties do not — their votes are discarded.