1 of 2 | Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks Wednesday at the start of a Likud Party meeting in Jerusalem. Photo by Debbie Hill/UPI | License Photo
Sept. 19 (UPI) -- Elections officials were nearing the end of their vote count Thursday in Israel, where the parties of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and challenger Benny Gantz were locked in a tight race.
With about 97 percent of ballots counted, officials said, Gantz's Blue and White Party held a slim lead over Netanyahu's Likud Party -- with 33 seats to 31.
On Thursday, Netanyahu called for Gantz to help establish a broad unity government, as neither party had won the requisite number of seats (61) for a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
Among the uncounted ballots were about 180,000 from foreign diplomats, military forces, the disabled voters, hospital patients and staff and prisoners.
The Joint List alliance of Arab-majority parties was in third place with 13 seats -- followed by the ultra-Orthodox Shas with nine, United Torah Judaism and Yisrael Beytenu with eight, Yamina with seven, Labor-Gesher six and the Democratic Camp five.
The parties considered center-left had the most seats with 57, and the more conservative bloc had 55.
Netanyahu, who has been in power for a decade, said he doesn't want to stage a third election. He said he's reflected on former Israeli leader Shimon Peres, who formed a unity government with Yitzchak Shamir in the 1980s after neither side secured a majority bloc.
"During the elections, I called for the establishment of a right-wing government," Netanyahu said. "But unfortunately, the results of the elections show that this was not possible."
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin applauded Netanyahu's call for unity.
"I hear the voices calling for establishment of a broad and stable unity government and I congratulate you, Mr. Prime Minister, on joining this morning to this call," he said.
Because he will be focused on forming a coalition government, Netanyahu said Thursday he will not appear at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City next week. While in Manhattan, Netanyahu was also supposed to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump. Foreign Minister Israel Katz will deliver the address instead.