Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conducted a cliff-chanter election in Israel on Tuesday, but still failed to gain a majority in power in a third national election in less than a year, polls revealed.
On the basis of initial projections by the three main Israeli television channels, Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party, claimed victory in Monday’s vote over his main opponent, the former centrist blue army chief Benny Gantz and white.
The updated exit polls, however, showed that Netanyahu had two fewer seats than the majority in the Israeli parliament, a gap signaling a possible stalemate, with real results spilling throughout Tuesday.
A victory for 70-year-old Netanyahu, after inconclusive polls in April and September, would testify to the political durability of Israel’s longest-serving leader, who waged the latest campaign under the shadow of an impending corruption trial.
It would also pave the way for Netanyahu to keep his promise to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and the Jordan Valley region after the election, as part of a peace plan presented by US President Donald. Trump.
The Palestinians rejected the proposal, saying it was killing their dream of establishing a viable state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, territory that Israel captured during the 1967 Middle East War.
The three main Israeli TV stations initially planned that Likud and similar parties would share 60 of the 120 seats in the parliament.
In their updated exit polls, channels 11, 12, and 13 dropped the number to 59, which could make the task of forming Netanyahu’s coalition more difficult.
In an acrimonious campaign that put more emphasis on character than on politics, right-wing and religious parties pledged to join a government led by Likud.
Netanyahu waged a vigorous campaign on his “safety first” strongman platform, which has been familiar to Israeli voters for decades, and his loyal blue-collar voter base has always supported him, seemingly unflappable in front of his imminent trial.
“What a joyful night,” Netanyahu said beaming to an enthusiastic crowd in a speech at the Likud electoral headquarters in Tel Aviv. “This victory is particularly sweet, because it is a victory against all odds … We have transformed lemons into lemonade.”
Gantz, in an address to his party’s electoral headquarters, did not concede his defeat, saying that the election could lead to another deadlock.
“I will tell you honestly, I understand and share the feeling of disappointment and pain because it is not the result we wanted,” he said.
Netanyahu’s re-election has been complicated since the last election by his charges of corruption, breach of trust and fraud over allegations that he granted millions of dollars in state favors to Israeli media barons in exchange of favorable media coverage, and that he allegedly received gifts.
The first trial of a serving Prime Minister in Israel is scheduled to begin on March 17. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.
During the campaign, Gantz called Netanyahu a “defendant”, accusing him of seeking to retain the power to promote legislation that would prevent the authorities from bringing an acting Prime Minister to justice.
Netanyahu described Gantz, 60, as a “coward”, saying that he would need the support of Arab politicians in parliament to form a government and that they would tie his hands.
Exit polls showed that Likud had between 36 and 37 parliamentary seats compared to 32 to 34 for blue and white – a gap that would make it much more difficult for Gantz to find a way to form a ruling coalition.
In previous elections in September, the Blue and White outstripped the Likud, taking 33 seats against 32 from its rival, but Gantz, like Netanyahu, was unable to form a ruling coalition.
“While we have to wait for the final results, there is no doubt that Prime Minister Netanyahu won an important political mandate from the people of Israel,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Institute for Israeli Democracy. “The Israelis have expressed support for the man they see as providing security and prosperity,” he said.
Netanyahu responded to the projections earlier Monday evening by tweeting that the results were “a huge victory for Israel”, also saying “Thank you” with a heart emoji.
In the final days of the campaign, opinion polls predicted a new impasse, but voter turnout was high, at 71%, despite concerns over the spread of the new coronavirus.
Home quarantined voters, such as those who recently returned to Israel from coronavirus hotspots, voted in special polling stations wearing face masks and gloves.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)