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Benjamin Netanyahu declares 'great victory;' exit polls tied

By Andrew V. Pestano and Danielle Haynes
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Benjamin Netanyahu declares 'great victory;' exit polls tied
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote during Israel's parliamentary elections in Jerusalem, Tuesday, March 17, 2015. Photo by Sebastian Scheiner /UPI. | License Photo

JERUSALEM, March 16 (UPI) -- Update 5:37 p.m. EST:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party and the opposing Zionist Union were neck and neck for control of the Knesset late Tuesday night, exit polls indicated.

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Each party had 27 Knesset seats as ballot boxes closed at 10 p.m. local time.

Despite polls indicating a close race, Netanyahu declared a "great victory" on Twitter.

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"Against all odds: a great victory for the Likud, a major victory for the national camp led by the Likud, a major victory for the people of Israel," he wrote in both Hebrew and English.

Should the race continue to be close, various parties could scramble to build a coalition government, increasing the likelihood for a national unity government, USA Today reported.

According to exit polls, the United List, a group of four small Arab parties, won 13 seats in the Knesset.

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Meanwhile, a record 30 women now hold seats on the Knesset, representing a quarter of the legislative body.

Original story follows:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there will be no State of Palestine if he wins on Tuesday in an effort to appease right-wingers in an election that's too close to call.

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There are more than 10,000 polling stations in Israel and nearly 6 million eligible voters. About 45 percent of eligible voters cast their decisions by 4 p.m. local time to vote for Israel's parliament, the Knesset.

Netanyahu released a message to his supporters warning that Likud is in danger of losing.

"The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are bussing them out," he said. "We have only you. Get out to vote."

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Current member of the Knesset and election candidate Dov Khenin criticized Netanyahu's appeal to get voters out, stating that his comments were racist.

"A prime minister who campaigns against voting by citizens belonging to an ethnic minority is crossing a red line of incitement and racism," Khenin said. "A statement like that, issued by the prime minister, shows that he has completely lost his way and that he is ready to break all the principles of democracy to safeguard his regime."

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Netanyahu announced he endorsed the idea of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2009, but reversed his decision due to mounting pressure as the latest polls put his Likud party in second place.

"I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving attack grounds to the radical Islam against the state of Israel," Netanyahu said in a video interview on news site NRG. "There is a real threat here that a left-wing government will join the international community and follow its orders."

The right-wing Likud party and the center-left Zionist Union coalition led by Isaac Herzog will await the results when polls close at 10 p.m.

Election polls have been blacked out since Friday evening. The majority of polls released before the blackout put the Zionist Union ahead of Likud by four seats.

Israel's unicameral legislative branch, known as the Knesset, has 120 seats. Since no party has ever won a majority of seats, party leaders must form alliances to form a government.

The elections are a national holiday and many people in Israel are enjoying the day off.

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Poll averages put Zionist Union at 25 seats and Likud at 21 seats. The leader of the party with the most seats forms a government. Knesset members are elected to four-year terms, but most have never served full terms as early elections are common.

A coalition of four Arab-majority parties, the Joint Arab List, will take about 13 seats according to polls. Yesh Atid, a centrist party led by former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, will take 12.

Netanyahu fired Finance Minister Lapid and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in December sparking the snap elections, which Netanyahu may lose.

"I will not tolerate opposition in my government anymore," Netanyahu said of the sacked ministers. "I won't accept ministers attacking the policy and head of the government from within."

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