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Polls have been closed in Israel's parliamentary elections, with exit polls showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party and the centre-left Zionist Union in a virtual deadlock.

Netanyahu, claiming victory for his Likud party in a close-call election on Tuesday, said he had invited other rightist politicians to join him in a coalition government "without delay".

"Reality does not take a break," the Israeli prime minister said in a speech to supporters after two television exit polls gave Likud a narrow lead over his centre-left challenger in the ballot.

Israel's Channel 1 and Channel 10 exit poll gave Likud and Zionist Union 27 seats each in the 120-member parliament. Meanwhile, Channel 2's exit polls put Likud at 28 seats and the Zionist Union at 27 seats.

 

Final results were not expected until early on Wednesday morning.

No party has ever won an outright majority in Israel's 67-year history, and it may be weeks before the country has a new government. Netanyahu will remain prime minister until a new administration is sworn in.

Earlier, in a statement released on Twitter, Netanyahu said that "against all odds" his Likud party and the nationalist camp secured a "great victory".

But Zionist Union chief Isaac Herzog, disputed Netanyahu's victory claim, saying "everything is open".

"This result allows us to return to power," Herzog told supporters at party headquarters in Tel Aviv after the exit polls.

"We will wait for the real results - everything is open," he said, adding that he intends to "make every effort to

Mr Netanyahu has done nothing in his political life but to destroy the two-state solution.

Saeb Erekat, Chief Palestinian negotiator

form a real socially-minded government for Israel" and that he had already spoken to some party leaders about putting together a coalition.

Arab surge

A new centrist party led by former communications minister Moshe Kahlon could be the kingmaker in coalition talks. After the balloting ended, he said he did not rule out a partnership with either Likud or Zionist Union.

The main Arab parties took third place with 13 seats after joining forces to challenge the prime minister, who on the eve of election had ruled out the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Ayman Odeh, head of the Arab Joint List, said it was a "historic day" for Israel's Arab minority because it would have a greater influence in parliament.

While they are unlikely to join a government, the Arab parties could give a centre-left coalition tacit support and create a block against Netanyahu.

"I voted for the Arab List because solidarity between Jews and Arabs is important for me," said Karin Michael, a 40-year-old book publisher in Tel Aviv.

Al Jazeera's Imtiaz Tyab, reporting from Tel Aviv, said that "this is the first time we’ve seen Arab Israeli parties put aside their differences to work together.

"They have said that they want to sit in opposition, put this is politics and we can’t rule out the Joint List joining Herzog altogether."

Palestinian group, Hamas, which governs Gaza, said "all the Israeli parties are alike to us".

All the Israeli parties are alike to us. They may disagree on many things but what unite them is their constant denial of the rights of the Palestinians and their will to continue the aggression against our people

Hamas spokesman,

"They may disagree on many things but what unite them is their constant denial of the rights of the Palestinians and their will to continue the aggression against our people," Hamas' spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement.

Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator, told Reuters: "It seems to me that Mr Netanyahu will form the next government in Israel and we all heard what he said yesterday ... Mr Netanyahu has done nothing in his political life but to destroy the two-state solution."

Netanyahu, 65, had lagged behind the centre-left Zionist Union in surveys ahead of the vote. But the Likud leader enjoyed a surge after a last-minute appeal to his supporters to go to the polls to counter a high turnout among Arab Israelis.

Herzog, 54, has repeatedly called for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

About six million Israelis were eligible to take part in the vote on Tuesday. Turnout was around 72 percent, higher than the last election in 2013.

Earlier on Tuesday, Israel's electoral authorities blocked the broadcast of a press conference by Netanyahu as voters went to the polls, saying that "propaganda" was banned on election day.

Netanyahu responded furiously in a video posted on Facebook. "All the politicians are speaking to the press today ... and it was blatant election propaganda," he said.

National elections are held every four years, unless Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, votes to dissolve the government and hold new elections.

The snap general election was necessitated after Netanyahu fired Tzipi Livni, the justice minister, and Yair Lapid, the finance minister in December.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies