Jerusalem CNN  — 

Benjamin Netanyahu’s hopes of securing a record fifth term as Israeli Prime Minister are on hold for the moment, after early results showed a tight election race with his main rival.

Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party appear neck and neck with the centrist Blue and White party led by Benny Gantz, with more than 90% of votes counted.

Both sides are projected to win 35 seats each based on actual results, report Israel’s Channel 12 and 13.

Netanyahu’s Likud party has secured 26.28% of the vote so far, while Gantz’s Blue and White has 25.97% – a difference of less than 13,000 votes, according to the results from the Central Elections Committee.

But Netanyahu may have the advantage when it comes to putting together a coalition. His bloc, made up of the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties, has 65 seats according to the latest results. A center-left bloc led by Gantz looks to have only 55 seats. To form a governing coalition, a candidate will need to put together 61 seats in the Israeli Knesset.

This picture could yet change if some of the smaller right-wing parties decide to support Gantz, a move observers say is unlikely.

With no clear winner having yet to emerge, both Netanyahu and Gantz claimed victory on Tuesday evening.

“The right-wing bloc led by the Likud won a clear victory. I thank the citizens of Israel for the trust. I will start forming a right-wing government with our natural partners as soon as tonight,” Netanyahu said.

Gantz, meanwhile, said the election had one clear winner and that he, not Netanyahu, should be called on to form the next government.

“We won! The Israeli public has had their say!” Gantz said in a statement. “These elections have a clear winner and a clear loser. Netanyahu promised 40 seats and lost. The President can see the picture and should call on the winner to form the next government. There is no other option!”

Officially, it’s up to Israel’s President to decide who is tasked with forming the next government. He announces his decision after consulting with the heads of the political parties that have secured enough votes to enter the Knesset. These consultations take a few days, and the President is likely to announce his decision about a week after the elections.

Netanyahu prepares to cast his vote on Tuesday.
Gantz waves to his supporters after casting his vote earlier Tuesday.

Netanyahu’s veer to the right

A tense night beckons for Netanyahu as he waits to see if his dream of becoming Israel’s longest ever serving leader will be fulfilled. He would pass the founder of the state, David Ben Gurion, during the summer.

Most of the final pre-election polls on Friday showed Netanyahu trailing by a few seats to Gantz. Casting himself as the underdog, Netanyahu veered sharply to his right in the final days of the campaign, pledging to annex West Bank settlements if re-elected, and warning his voter base that the end of his strong right-wing government would signal the beginning of a weak left-wing government.

Netanyahu fought the election in the face of looming indictments for bribery and breach of trust offenses. His campaign sought to portray his pending indictments as a witch-hunt led by left-wing elites and fed by the media.

As CNN discovered when it visited a Likud stronghold in Beersheva, that message resonated strongly with many blue-collar Israelis. The local Likud organizer in the town compared Netanyahu to Moses, saying, “The more they go after him, the stronger he becomes.”

The election was called in December, ostensibly after the government gave up on efforts to get a new military draft law through Parliament. Netanyahu believed the timing was right – sending voters to the polls before any indictments were brought against him, and with a message he could sell to the electorate. Speaking to his Likud lawmakers on the day the election was called, he said the outgoing government had “outstanding achievements” on which to campaign.

Gantz enters the fray

At first facing a diverse array of opponents, Netanyahu saw his challenge crystallize after a dramatic announcement in February, which saw three former army chiefs come together with a former TV news anchor-turned-politician to create the Blue and White party. The name was simple but significant. Blue and White are the colors of the Israeli flag. The message was equally simple: Blue and White had been created to reclaim the state of Israel from Prime Minister Netanyahu.

The man who would lead that campaign and present himself as the anti-Netanyahu candidate was Gantz, a former head of the army, who had held that position under Netanyahu, fighting two wars in Gaza during his tenure.