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Israelis vote in close-fought election

Israelis are voting in the country’s most closely-fought general election in years.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud Party, is seeking a fifth term in office.

But he is facing corruption allegations and a strong challenge from former military chief Benny Gantz.

Mr Gantz, head of the centrist Blue and White alliance, is challenging Mr Netanyahu on the key issue of security and is promising cleaner politics.

Israel’s Labour Party, which sealed a breakthrough peace deal with the Palestinians in the 1990s, has lost favour with voters in recent years.

No party has ever won a majority in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, the Knesset, and the country has always had coalition governments.

As soon as the results start coming in at 22:00 (19:00 GMT) on Tuesday, negotiations start on the formation of a governing coalition.

Final pre-election polls suggested the two main contenders were neck-and-neck, with both set to win 30 seats.

In Israel’s fragmented party system the advantage remains with Mr Netanyahu, who still looks most likely to be able to form a new coalition government, says the BBC’s Tom Bateman in Jerusalem.

In a widely criticised move to lock down extra right-wing seats, Mr Netanyahu brokered a deal in February making it easier for candidates from an extreme-right wing party that many view as racist to enter parliament.

Israeli Arabs make up almost a fifth of the population, but surveys suggest that fewer than half of those eligible to vote plan to do so.

At a rally in Jerusalem on Monday, Mr Netanyahu told Likud supporters not to be “complacent” and urged them to turn out at polling stations.

He warned that his “leftist” rivals could still win.

Our correspondent says Mr Netanyahu has appealed to Israel’s increasingly right-wing voter base with tough messages on security and settlements in the occupied West Bank.

The settlements are considered illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

Our correspondent says Mr Netanyahu has faced an uncomfortable election race, dogged by looming corruption charges, and a flare-up in the conflict with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

The prime minister denies the corruption allegations, and says he is a victim of a political “witch hunt” aimed at influencing the election. –BBC

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