Netanyahu ahead in Israeli election, but still lacking governing majority

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared victory on Monday in Israel's election – the third in less than a year - but television exit polls showed he was still short of a governing majority in parliament.

A win for Netanyahu, after inconclusive ballots in April and September, would be a testament to the political durability of Israel's longest-serving leader, who fought the latest campaign under the shadow of a looming corruption trial.

Netanyahu's latest re-election bid has been complicated by his indictment on charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud over allegations he granted state favors worth millions of dollars to Israeli media barons in return for favorable press coverage and that he wrongfully received gifts.

The first trial of a sitting prime minister in Israel is due to begin on March 17. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.

During the campaign, Netanyahu's main challenger Benny Gantz called Netanyahu "the defendant" and has accused him of seeking to retain power to promote legislation that would bar authorities from putting a serving prime minister on trial.

In a speech at his Blue and White party's election headquarters, Gantz stopped short of conceding defeat, saying the election could result in another deadlock.

A win for Netanyahu would also pave the way for him to make good on his pledge to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, and the region's Jordan Valley, under a peace plan presented by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Palestinians have rejected the proposal, saying it was killing their dream of establishing a viable state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.