Exit polls indicate there is no clear winner in the Israeli election, leaving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fate uncertain and signalling continued political deadlock.
The polls on Israel’s three main TV stations on Tuesday showed Netanyahu and his religious and nationalist allies, as well as the diverse array of opponents, both falling short of a parliamentary majority. That could set the stage for weeks of paralysis and even an unprecedented fifth consecutive election. Exit polls are often imprecise and the official results may not be known for days.
Netanyahu nevertheless said in a Facebook post late Tuesday that Israelis had “given a great victory to the right and to the Likud under my leadership”.
The exit polls conducted by Channels 11, 12 and 13 were nearly identical, showing Netanyahu and his allies with 53-54 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament. His opponents were projected to win 59, and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party was projected to win 7-8.
If the final results are in line with the exit polls, both sides will have to court Bennett, a former Netanyahu ally with strained relations with the prime minister, to form a majority of at least 61 seats.
Bennett shares Netanyahu’s hardline nationalist ideology but has signalled he would be open to cooperating with his rivals if given the chance to be the prime minister.
The election is widely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s divisive rule, and once again, opinion polls had forecast an extremely tight race.
The three-month campaign was largely devoid of substantive issues and focused heavily on Netanyahu’s personality and whether he should remain in office.
“Vote, vote, vote, vote, vote,” Netanyahu said after casting his ballot in Jerusalem, his wife, Sara, at his side.
Netanyahu, 71, who even after 12 years in office remains a tireless campaigner, continued throughout the day. At one point, he marched along a Mediterranean beach imploring people over a megaphone to go vote.
“This is the moment of truth for the state of Israel,” said one of his challengers, opposition leader Yair Lapid, as he voted in Tel Aviv.
Netanyahu has emphasised Israel’s highly successful coronavirus vaccination campaign. He moved aggressively to secure enough vaccines for Israel’s 9.3 million people, and in three months the country has vaccinated some 80 per cent of its adult population. That has enabled the government to open restaurants, stores and the airport just in time for election day.
He also has tried to portray himself as a global statesman, pointing to the four diplomatic accords he reached with Arab countries last year. Those agreements were brokered by his close ally, then-President Donald Trump.
Netanyahu’s opponents, including a trio of former aides who share his nationalistic ideology but object to what they say is his autocratic leadership style, see things far differently.
They say that Netanyahu bungled many aspects of the pandemic, particularly by allowing his ultra-Orthodox allies to ignore lockdown rules and fuel a high infection rate for much of the year. Over 6,000 Israelis have died from COVID-19, and the economy remains in weak shape with double-digit unemployment.
They also point to Netanyahu’s corruption trial, saying someone who is under indictment for serious crimes is not fit to lead the country.
Tuesday’s election was sparked by the disintegration of an emergency government formed last May between Netanyahu and his chief rival at the time. The alliance was plagued by infighting, and elections were forced after they failed to agree on a budget in December.
“It would be better if we didn’t have to vote, you know, four times in two years,” said Jerusalem voter Bruce Rosen. “It’s a little bit tiring.”
By 6 p.m. (1600 GMT), 51.5 per cent of eligible voters had cast ballots, a drop of nearly 5 percentage points from the previous election a year ago, the Israeli election commission announced.
Netanyahu is hoping to form a government with his traditional religious and hardline nationalist allies. These include a pair of ultra-Orthodox parties and a small religious party that includes openly racist and homophobic candidates.
This time, much will depend on the performance of a handful of small parties struggling to win the minimum 3.25 per cent of the vote to enter the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament.
While Netanyahu’s Likud was expected to emerge as the largest single party, no party has ever won a 61-seat majority on its own. Both he and his rivals must win the support of smaller allied parties to form a majority coalition.
Another complicating factor was absentee balloting. Up to 15 per cent of the electorate was expected to vote outside their home districts, a larger-than-usual number due to special accommodations for those with COVID-19 or in quarantine.
Those votes are tallied separately in Jerusalem, meaning final results may not be known for days. Given the tight race, it could be difficult to predict the outcome before the final count is complete.
After the results come in, attention will turn to the country’s figurehead president, Reuven Rivlin.
He will hold a series of meetings with party leaders and then choose the one he believes has the best chance of forming a government as his prime minister-designate. That task is usually, but not always, given to the head of the largest party. (AP)