Preliminary vote count in Israel elections puts PM Netanyahu in lead with 24%

JERUSALEM (AFP) - With around 70 per cent of votes counted in Israel's election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party was leading early on Wednesday with 23.73 per cent, the Central Elections Committee said.

His nearest rival, the centre-left Zionist Union, was trailing with 19.06 per cent, the committee's website said, without translating the percentages into parliamentary seats won.

Mr Netanyahu claimed victory in the elections on Tuesday as exit polls put him neck-and-neck with centre-left rivals after a late fightback in his bid for a third-straight term.

Analysts said Mr Netanyahu was in a stronger position to forge a coalition with his rightwing allies that would extend his six years in power.

Figures published by public Channel 1 and private Channel 10 television both gave Mr Netanyahu's Likud and Mr Isaac Herzog's Zionist Union 27 seats each in the 120-member Parliament.

A third poll by private Channel 2 gave Likud a one-seat lead.

"Against all odds: a great victory for the Likud. A major victory for the people of Israel!" Mr Netanyahu wrote on his official Twitter account.

Mr Netanyahu, 65, enjoyed a surge after a last-minute appeal to his supporters to go to the polls to counter a high turnout among Arab Israelis.