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Jerusalem, Undefined -- Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu inched towards reclaiming power Wednesday after projected election results showed a majority government was within reach for the veteran right-winger, though the outlook could shift as ballots are counted.
If the exit polls hold, it would mark a dramatic comeback for Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving premier, whose Likud party could be poised to form a coalition with its ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies and a rising extreme-right.
"We are close to a big victory," Netanyahu told supporters at a rally in Jerusalem early Wednesday. "We don't know the final results yet, but if the results are like the exit polls, I will form a national (right-wing) government."
But his main rival, caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, told his own supporters in Tel Aviv that "nothing is decided", and that his centrist Yesh Atid party "will wait patiently... for the final results".
The margins appeared wafer-thin, as was expected in the bitterly divided nation holding its fifth election in less than four years. Previous elections have shown that slight adjustments during the official count can turn an apparently decisive result into yet another deadlock.
But the early signs were positive for the 73-year-old Netanyahu, who is on trial over corruption charges that he denies.
Projections from three Israeli networks put Netanyahu's Likud on track for a first-place finish, with between 30 and 32 seats.
That number, combined with projected tallies for the extreme-right Religious Zionism alliance and the two ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, would give the bloc backing Netanyahu between 61 and 62 seats.
An outright victory for the bloc would end the short reign of an alliance of eight parties under Lapid that managed to oust Netanyahu last year before collapsing itself.
- High turnout -
Lapid's Yesh Atid was on track for an expected second-place finish, with projections giving it between 22 and 24 seats.
But exit polls put the premier's ideologically-divided alliance of Netanyahu rivals short of a majority.
The head of the Israel Democracy Institute, Yohanan Plesner, warned of past "discrepancies" between exit polls and the actual results.
In a climate of grinding political deadlock, concerns about voter fatigue were widespread, but in the end 71.3 percent of voters turned out, the highest rate since 2015, according to official figures.
- 'Coalition of extremists' -
Extreme-right leader Itamar Ben-Gvir would be key to helping Netanyahu return to power, with his Religious Zionism bloc on track for an estimated 14 seats, according to exit polls, double its current presence in parliament.
Ben-Gvir, who wants Israel to annex the entire West Bank, said his rise was fuelled by Israelis' security concerns.
"It's time we go back to being masters of our country," he said, reiterating his call for security services to use more force against Palestinians.
Justice Minister Gideon Saar, a former Likud heavyweight who broke with Netanyahu and now leads his own party, warned early Tuesday that Israel risked electing a "coalition of extremists".
Arab-Israeli lawmaker Aida Touma-Suleiman said Netanyahu might be on track to form a government "with fascists by his side".
- 'Growing extremism' -
The vote was held against a backdrop of soaring violence across Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.
At least 29 Palestinians and three Israelis were killed across the two territories in October, according to an AFP tally.
While many candidates have cited security as a concern, none have pledged to revive moribund peace talks with the Palestinians.
The Palestinian prime minister, Mohammed Shttayeh, said the projected outcome highlighted "growing extremism and racism in Israeli society".
Lapid was the architect of the last coalition, which for the first time brought an independent Arab party into the fold.
The unlikely alliance was made possible after Mansour Abbas pulled his Raam party from a united slate with other Arab-led parties, paving the way for him to join the coalition.
But Raam's pioneering support for a coalition was not viewed positively across Arab society, which makes up around 20 percent of Israel's population.
Raam was projected to re-enter parliament, according to exit polls, but Abbas charged that Arabs voters being "passive" could deliver a "gift" to Netanyahu, possibly ushering in a government with politicians known for virulent, anti-Arab rhetoric.
A focus of the overnight count was the Arab-led Balad party, which rejects any cooperation with Israeli governance.
The early count put Balad just short of 3.25 percent of the vote needed to secure the minimum four seats in parliament.
If they cross the line when all the ballots are counted, that would reshuffle the tally, potentially dealing a blow to Netanyahu's chances.
© Agence France-Presse