Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, was in sight of forming a government after voting closed in the country’s general election, exit polls broadcast by local news channels predicted.
The five-time premier’s rightwing coalition was on course to be within a few seats of a majority — and just above the 60-seat mark if he can entice a former ally, Naftali Bennett, to join his coalition.
“This is a huge victory for the right-wing,” Netanyahu tweeted around midnight. “A clear majority of Israeli citizens are right-wing, and they want a strong and stable right-wing government.”
The polls have been notoriously unreliable in the past, and provisional results are likely to take days after counting was slowed by coronavirus curbs. Fractious coalition building that has taken months in the past is predicted to be just as contentious this time round.
But all three television polls showed Netanyahu’s Likud party and his committed allies across the spectrum of rightwing parties at about 53 or 54 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. This makes it likely that he can tempt Bennett, a former defence minister and now leader of the Yamina alliance, to bring his predicted seven or eight seats into a coalition.
“Bennett has no choice but to join a rightwing government with us,” Yoav Kisch, a Likud heavyweight, told the Kann public broadcaster. “I am certain that after we form a 61-seat government, others will join.”
That leaves Israel’s political gridlock hanging on a margin of a single seat. Four elections in two years have left voters who want to oust Netanyahu, 71, cancelled out by those who have sought a sixth premiership for an indicted prime minister fighting off a corruption trial.
If the polls hold, and Netanyahu is able to build his coalition, Israel may be spared a fifth election in the midst of a robust recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, record high unemployment and an uncertain budgetary outlook.
Netanyahu campaigned on his success in bringing enough vaccines to Israel to inoculate the majority of adults. It allowed him to safely reopen the economy just two weeks ago, and have news from his ongoing trial eclipsed.
His rivals include a former television presenter focused on middle-class issues, a breakaway faction of ex-Likud leaders, a secular nationalist leader of Russian-speaking Israelis, and a constellation of leftwing parties. They campaigned without a candidate for prime minister, promising only to work out an alliance if they collectively unseated Netanyahu.
This group of committed anti-Netanyahu parties has totalled 58 seats in the exit polls, but has no path to garnering the three more needed to form a government.
“I am centre-right, a Likud supporter, but I didn’t vote for Bibi,” said Randi Mellman Oze, 62, in Jerusalem. “He puts his own needs ahead of his country’s needs — his time is over.”
Oze ended up voting for New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar. His promise of a restrained, conservative platform split the rightwing, drawing in Likud voters tired of Netanyahu’s corruption trial and public theatrics.
After debuting in opinion polls at nearly 20 seats, New Hope eventually garnered less than six, the polls suggested, indicating that Netanyahu retains the mantle of the right’s undisputed leader.
Yesh Atid, headed by Yair Lapid, emerged as the second-largest party. However, with roughly half the size of Likud’s vote haul, it is unlikely to be able to put together a rival coalition.
Lapid had declined to campaign as an alternative to Netanyahu, running instead on a platform of clean governance not subject to Netanyahu’s trial.
Benny Gantz, the wartime general who fought Netanyahu in three previous elections, was punished by voters who felt betrayed by his decision to join a coalition government with Netanyahu as premier. Exit polls showed that his party, once part of an alliance that equalled Likud’s pull, at less than seven or eight seats.
The largest upset appears to be the near-complete collapse of the Arab bloc of voters. The Joint List of Arab parties, which won 15 seats in the elections last year, split before this fourth poll and will drop to under eight seats.
The breakaway faction, known as Ra’am, had decided to remain uncommitted to Netanyahu’s future in contrast to the Joint List’s staunch opposition. However, it is hovering near the voting threshold needed to cross into the Knesset. Failing to reach it would end attempts by the Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas to emerge as the Islamist kingmaker in the Jewish state’s politics.
“I am angry about the division [in our ranks],” Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List, told Channel 12 News. “We wanted full unity. And now, Netanyahu is close to forming a very extremist government.”
If Ra’am defies the exit polls and emerges with more than 3.25 per cent of the national vote, Netanyahu’s path to a coalition becomes more precarious.