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Polls have closed in Israel and ballots are being counted after millions took part in an election widely seen as a referendum on the fate of incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu, who became Israel's longest-serving prime minister in July, is seeking a record fifth term in office. He is competing against his toughest challenger in years, former army chief Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party.

According to the first round of exit polls, Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition bloc have failed to secure the 61 seat majority they needed.

Two exit polls put Gantz's party in a narrow lead. A Channel 12 exit poll said it would win 34 seats, with Netanyahu's Likud one seat behind. The poll had Arab Joint List on 11 seats with eight for former Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman’s far-right Yisrael Beiteinu.

Meanwhile, an exit poll on Channel 13 put Likud at 31 seats, trailing Gantz's party by two seats.

Speaking to cheering supporters in Tel Aviv early this morning Gantz said it was necessary to wait for the official results, but was clearly confident.

"Netanyahu has not been successful in what he set out to do," he told the crowd. "We have proved that the idea is Blue and White; that we established a little over a year ago was successful and is here to stay."

Speaking shortly afterwards, Netanyahu took the stage at Likud's party headquarters in Tel Aviv.

He told his supporters that coalition talks had already begun.

"Israel is entitled to a strong government, a stable government, a government which ensures Israel is the nation of the Jewish people, and that it cannot, will not, be a government which is formed of parties which hate the nation," he said, apologising for a croaky voice and sipping on water.

Al Jazeera's Harry Fawcett, speaking from the Likud headquarters, said Netanyahu's speech was one of "bruised defiance" and that he would face significant hurdles in building a coalition.

"His grip on power has weakened," Fawcett said.

Some 31 parties were competing for the 120 seats in the country’s 22nd Knesset.

Although many observers expected election fatigue to set in as voters headed to the polls for the second time in less than six months, early turnout was the highest in decades and long queues formed during the afternoon on Tuesday outside polling stations in the capital Tel Aviv.

Preliminary results will be announced on Wednesday with final results on September 25.

Israel's President Reuven Rivlin will decide who will be given the mandate to form a new government - usually the leader of the party that wins the most seats.

If Rivlin thinks this person is unlikely to garner enough support from smaller parties to control at least 61 seats of the Knesset, he may give the task to someone else.

"If Netanyahu doesn’t clear the 61-seat threshold tonight, Rivlin may still give him the mandate to form a government," Eli Nissan, an Israeli political analyst, told Al Jazeera.

"But if he fails to form a government within the next few weeks - like what happened after the April vote - the president may give Gantz the opportunity to do that instead. If he fails as well, the president may push for a unity government."

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Benjamin Netanyahu Israeli Prime Minister Benny Gantz Israel elections
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