Jerusalem CNN  — 

As counting gets underway in Israel’s unprecedented repeat general election, exit poll projections show the country’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and former military chief, Benny Gantz, locked in a tight race.

Just after polling stations closed across Israel, the country’s three main TV stations flashed the result of their individual exit polls – showing Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party neck and neck with Gantz’s centrist Blue and White Party.

These polls have a reputation for unreliability – both Netanyahu and Gantz claimed victory on election night five months ago, amid confusion over varying projections showing each ahead. In the end, Netanyahu failed to form a coalition government, and Gantz wasn’t given a chance.

But politicians and voters alike still take them seriously, and watch them closely.

The poll for Kan Channel 11, Israel’s public broadcast network, projects Likud winning 32 seats and his main challenger, former army boss Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party winning 32 seats.

Israeli Channel 12’s projection shows Likud taking 33 seats and Blue and White with 34, while Channel 13 forecasts 31 seats for Netanyahu’s party and 33 seats for his main challenger.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressees his supporters at party headquarters after elections in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019.

Speaking to supporters in Tel Aviv in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Netanyahu said Israel “needs a strong, stable, Zionist government committed to Israel as a national state for the Jewish people.”

“There cannot be a government (in Israel) that is supported by anti-Zionist Arab parties that do not believe in Israel as a Jewish democratic state,” he said. “In the next few days we will get into negotiations to establish a Zionist government to prevent the formation of a dangerous anti-Zionist government.”

Netanyahu added that US President Donald Trump’s “plan of the century will be presented soon.”

“The negotiations with the Americans will shape the future of Israel for generations to come,” he said.

At an event for his own supporters across town, Gantz struck an optimistic tone, saying the people of Israel had voted for unity, and that he intended to lead his Blue and White party in creating a “broad unity government.”

Contacts with other parties to build that coalition have already started, he added, saying “I intend to talk to everybody, starting tonight.”

Gantz also said that it appeared as though Netanyahu had not succeeded in his mission to put together a coalition of right-wing and religious parties.

“Of course we’ll be waiting for the true and final results, but the way it looks right now, we accomplished our mission and we did it our way,” he said.

Benny Gantz, leader and candidate of the Israel Resilience party that is part of the Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) political alliance, addresses supporters at the alliance's campaign headquarters in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv early on September 18, 2019.

Close race

These elections are being contested by 29 parties. It is expected that either nine or 10 should make it over the 3.25% threshold, and win representation in the 120-seat Parliament.

Several smaller parties are fighting to clear that threshold, and their performance could be make or break for Netanyahu or Gantz’s ability to form a coalition.

One of the parties most closely watched in this election is Yisrael Beiteinu, founded and led by former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman. It was his refusal to join Netanyahu’s proposed coalition earlier in the year, and the Prime Minister’s decision to go to fresh elections rather than let another party leader try to form a government, that brought about this second national poll in five months.