Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Benny Gantz both declare victory in Israel’s general elections as exit polls showed a tight race

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his centrist challenger for the premiership, Benny Gantz, have both proclaimed victory in Israel's general elections as exit polls showed a tight race.

Updated exit polls on two of Israel's three main TV channels a few hours after voting ended on Tuesday showed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party is winning more parliamentary seats, setting the right-wing leader on course for a record fifth term. But a  third survey put Gantz's centrist Blue and White Party a seat ahead of Likud.

Partial results with 80 percent of votes counted predict that Likud is to win 38 seats, eight more than in the previous election in 2015, and Blue and White 36, according to the Knesset website and Israeli TV channels.

No single Israeli party has ever won an absolute majority in any parliamentary elections. The winner has to make a coalition with smaller parties, a process that takes weeks to from a cabinet.

Though neither party captured a ruling majority in the 120-member Knesset, according to the polls, the surveys put Netanyahu in a stronger position to form a coalition government with right-wing factions.

"It is a night of colossal victory," the 69-year-old Netanyahu told cheering supporters in a late-night speech at Likud headquarters, while cautioning that a "long night and possibly day" lay ahead awaiting official results.

Netanyahu, in power since 2009, has been fighting for his political survival in a closely contested race which was widely seen in Israel as a referendum on his character and record in the face of corruption allegations as he faces possible indictment in three graft cases.

Centrist rival Gantz, 59, earlier also claimed victory, citing preliminary exit polls that showed his party had won more seats than Likud. "We are the victors... We want to thank Benjamin
Netanyahu for his service to the nation," said Gantz.

Israelis voted 'no to peace'

A senior Palestinian official said that Israelis had voted "no to peace" after exit polls following the country's general election showed its left-wing parties, presumably more committed to the so-called peace process, were badly defeated.

"Israelis have voted to preserve the status quo. They have said no to peace and yes to the occupation," senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said in a statement. The so-called Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in 2014.