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Summary

  1. Exit polls in Israel's election suggest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party and the Zionist Union are neck-and-neck
  2. Two polls project the parties have 27 seats each, while a third says Likud has one more seat than its rival, led by Yitzhak Herzog
  3. Mr Netanyahu hails the outcome as a "great victory" for Likud, but Mr Herzog insists "everything is open"
  4. Both would need the support of other parties in the 120-seat Knesset to form a coalition government
  5. The exit polls suggest that the Joint List, an alliance of Arab-Israeli parties, has come third (All times in GMT)

Live Reporting

By Roland Hughes and David Gritten

All times stated are UK

Get involved

That ends our live coverage of Israel's election night. You can catch the latest on the coalition building

here.

Just to recap: exit polls in Israel's election suggest a very close race. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the projected results as a great victory for his right-wing Likud party. But his main rival, Yitzhak Herzog of the centre-left Zionist Union, said he was more likely to be asked to form a government. The exit polls suggest the parties are neck-and-neck with 27 seats each. Both would need the support of other parties to form a coalition government - a process that could take several weeks.

Yolande Knell

BBC News, Tel Aviv

Shortly after midnight local time, Mr Herzog told an expectant crowd that the results were "a great achievement". He said he still hoped to form a new government that would tackle the social issues on which they fought this election and which have appealed to Israel's struggling middle class.

Yolande Knell

BBC News, Tel Aviv

There was chanting and clapping at the Zionist Union headquarters but this wasn't the party that activists had hoped for. Just a small gaggle stood waving flags while others stood nervously poring over the exit poll results - trying to determine their meaning. There was a long delay before the Labour leader, Yitzhak Herzog, took to the stage with his political partner, Tzipi Livni of Hatnua. The two had met soon after the early voting indications came out and were contacting senior figures in other parties, sounding them out to join a potential coalition.

Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Herzog celebrate at the Zionist Union's election headquarters in Tel Aviv (17 March 2015)
EPA

The BBC's Jonathan Josephs

understands that rumours that Israel's President Reuven Rivlin wants a national unity government did not come from his office.

Partial results are available in Hebrew on the Central Elections Committee's

website. With more than 65% of ballots counted, Likud currently has 24.6% of the vote and the Zionist Union 18.9%. The threshold for parties to be in the Knesset is 3.25% of the vote, or about four seats.

Official results from Tuesday's election won't be known for several days. The Central Elections Committee expects about 95% of the votes to have been counted by early on Wednesday morning. The remaining 5% - ballots cast by military personnel, prisoners, diplomats and hospital patients - will not be declared until Thursday night or Friday morning. Given the predicted closeness of the result, that 5% could make all the difference.

Political analyst and pollster Mitchell Barak tells the BBC chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet: "Netanyahu's message was of scaring, defence - 'We are in trouble'. Whereas Hertzog was giving the message of hope, the message of peace, the message of the future. Two different messages. And the same electoral result."

Jeremy Bowen

BBC Middle East editor

Mr Netanyahu's premature declaration of victory was based on his confidence that he has more allies among the smaller parties than Mr Herzog. This is the time when political minnows can become kingmakers, demanding ministerial posts and expensive favours for their voters in return for support. The president has indicated that a government of national unity including both main parties is the best option. That doesn't necessarily mean that kind of coalition will emerge. And if it does anyone hoping for a revival of the peace process with the Palestinians will be disappointed. During the campaign Mr Netanyahu said publicly for the first time that he was against the establishment of an independent Palestine.

Jeremy Bowen

BBC Middle East editor

Mr Netanyahu is claiming victory. Mr Herzog is saying that he hasn't lost. That means the serious wrangling over the leadership and composition of the next coalition has started. The president has to decide who will be given the job of prime minister-designate and the chance to try to form a coalition. Israel's form of proportional representation always produces smaller parties and coalition government.

Benjamin Netanyahu appears at Likud's election headquarters (17 March 2015)
Reuters

Lyse Doucet

Chief international correspondent, Jerusalem

It is a remarkable victory for Benjamin Netanyahu. This election was widely described as a referendum on his last six years of rule, and in the last few days of the campaign, he was warning of, as he saw it, a great danger of him not returning. His panic - the promises, the calls to voters to cast their ballots - went right up to the moment the polls closed. So the fact his Likud party came out with either 27 or 28 seats is a remarkable comeback.

Another post on Mr Netanyahu's

official Twitter account says: "Every family, soldier, citizen, Jewish or not are important to me! We will form a strong government to work for them." A second promises: "We will lower housing prices & the cost of living."

Michael Shuval

Producer, BBC Arabic

tweets: Crowd at Likud headquarter in Tel-Aviv chant at Netanyahu: "No to unity government!" #IsraeElex

While Mr Netanyahu delivered his speech in Tel Aviv, a statement was posted on his official Twitter feed praising the people of Israel.

Tweet from Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu - March 18, 2015
Twitter

The Likud leader says he spoke with the heads of other right-wing parties to discuss forming a government "without delay". "Reality does not take a break," he adds.

Mr Netanyahu adds: "Now we have to form a strong and stable government that will take care of the welfare and security of all of Israel's citizens."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets supporters at the party"s election headquarters In Tel Aviv.Tuesday, March 17, 2015
AP

Mr Netanyahu thanks his supporters for their rapturous welcome. "Against all odds, we have achieved a big victory for the Likud party," he says. "We have achieved a big victory for our people."

Benjamin Netanyahu has arrived at Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv. He will speak soon.

Benjamin Netanyahu at Likud Party headquarters - March 18, 2015
AP

Kevin Connolly

BBC News, Tel Aviv

The Likud activists were dancing and singing within minutes of the TV stations broadcasting their exit polls quite simply because they can see a relatively simple pathway towards the formation of another right-wing coalition. It would involve Mr Netanyahu teaming up with the secularists of Yisraeli Beitenu and Kulanu and adding the religious nationalists of Jewish Home and the parties that represent ultra-orthodox Jews like Shas. There'd be personal ambitions to balance one against the other and each of those parties would have a shopping list of demands that might not always be compatible with the demands of the others. But the outline of a workable coalition can be seen much more easily from this vantage point than from the point of view of the leftist Zionist Union led by Yitzhak Herzog of the Labour Party.

Israel election: An end or new era for Netanyahu?

Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu celebrate as election results come in at his election campaign headquarters on March 17, 2015 in Tel Aviv, Israel
Getty Images
The vote was described as a "great victory" for the Likud party

Dan Williams of the Reuters news agency

tweets: In his speech, Herzog twice said now's the time to "sleep off" the stress of the election race. Not quite a message of leadership momentum.

Likud candidate Sharren Haskel has played down talk of a grand coalition between her party and the Zionist Union. She tells the BBC: "I think there is too much distance between the two parties and the voters who voted to those two parties expect different results, and so I think it would be very disappointing to our voters if we do sit in a unity government."

We are expecting Mr Netanyahu to arrive at the Likud party's election headquarters any time now.

A new exit poll

by Israel's Channel One TV network indicates the far-right Yachad party has enough votes to pass the threshold to get into parliament - at least 3.25%, or four seats. It could prove to be an important ally to Mr Netanyahu in the forming of a coalition.

Mr Herzog concludes by telling his supporters: "There will be no decisions tonight, so you can go to sleep."

Mr Herzog predicts a "political turnover in Israel". "This result allows us to become a ruling party. Everything is open," he says. Mr Herzog adds that he has "spoken to all the heads of the relevant parties" and that while the final results are not yet known, "I will do all that I can in order to create a real socially-minded government for Israel."

Zionist Union leader Yitzhak Herzog is addressing supporters at its election headquarters in Tel Aviv. "We have achieved an unbelievable achievement today," he says.

Itzhak Herzog addresss supporters in Tel Aviv - March 17, 2015
BBC

Michael Shuval

Producer, BBC Arabic

tweets: Netanyahu must choose: Stable right wing coalition w no intl legitimacy or unstable moderate gov that could prevent further isolation.

The official results are coming in - slowly. The Central Elections Committee is publishing results in real-time

on its website.

An Israeli drops his ballot into the ballot box as he votes in the Israeli general elections in a school polling station in Tel Aviv, Israel, 17 March 2015.
EPA

US state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki responded to the comment by saying: "We're always concerned, broadly speaking, about any statements that may be aimed at marginalising certain communities."

Earlier on Tuesday, Mr Netanyahu attracted criticism after suggesting his hopes of victory were under threat due to the number of votes being cast by Israeli Arabs, who make up around 20% of the population. "The right-wing government is in danger," he wrote on Facebook. "Arab voters are going to vote in droves. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses." This, he warned, "grants excessive power to the radical" Joint Arab List.

The Zionist Union has responded to Mr Netanyahu's statement by stressing that "everything is possible until the real results are in", the Haaretz newspaper reports. The Labour-Hatnua alliance has formed a negotiating team to help Yitzhak Herzog form a government, while the left-wing Meretz party, which the polls suggest has won five seats, has called on Herzog not to form a grand coalition with Mr Netanyahu, it adds.

Zionist Union supporters at the alliance's election headquarters in Tel Aviv (17 March 2015)
Reuters

A lot of people are happy with Mr Netanyahu's declaration of victory following the publication of exit polls indicating his Likud party is tied with the Zionist Union.

Facebook post by Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu - March 17, 2015
Facebook

The militant Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, which dominates the Gaza Strip and fought a 50-day war with Israel last summer, has dismissed the results of the election as irrelevant. "We do not differentiate between Israeli parties as they all agree on the denial of our rights and planning further aggression," their spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told the BBC.

On the eve of the election, Mr Netanyahu reiterated a pledge to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state if he was re-elected.

The Palestinians have vowed to step up their campaign for international recognition of Palestinian statehood following the publication of the exit polls in Israel. Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told the AFP news agency: "It is clear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will form the next government, so we say clearly that we will go to the International Criminal Court in The Hague and we will speed up, pursue and intensify" all diplomatic efforts.

Dan Williams of the Reuters news agency

tweets: Palestinian flag waved as the Joint Arab List celebrates its third-place win in Israel's election - @eran_singer @chicomenashe

Supporters of the Arab Joint List celebrate in Nazareth (17 March 2015)
AFP

The Haaretz newspaper

quotes one Likud party official as saying Mr Netanyahu will seek to form a grand coalition with Mr Herzog. The official explains: "Netanyahu doesn't want a unity government, but sometimes you find yourself with no choice."

Political analyst and pollster Mitchell Barak tells the BBC's Lyse Doucet that Zionist Union leader Yitzhak Herzog "was a successful lawyer, he was a minister, he sat in the cabinet. He's from one of the most well known Israeli families - an elitist - almost like the Israeli version of the Kennedys". He adds: "His father, the president, was born in Belfast, and he certainly on St Patrick's Day has the luck of the Irish."

Mitchell Barak and Lyse Doucet - March 17, 2015
BBC

The Arab Joint List look almost certain to finish third in the election. Their leader, Ayman Odeh, has been speaking in the last few minutes. The Times of Israel

quotes him as saying: "We are in a historic moment. We have the highest Arab voting rates since 1999. We will block Netanyahu from forming the government."

Israeli Arab political leader and leader of a joint list of Arab parties, Ayman Odeh - March 14, 2015
Getty Images

Turnout was below 2013 levels until 20:00 local time. Some large numbers appear to have turned out in the last few hours of voting.