Major parties neck and neck but incumbent has path to form majority government with right-wing allies
Benjamin Netanyahu was on track on Wednesday morning to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, despite his Likud party winning the same number of seats as his rivals, The Guardian reports.
With 97% of votes counted, both Likud and the Blue and White party, led by former army general Benny Gantz, had won 35 seats in the 120-seat parliament, the Knesset.
However, results showed Netanyahu would be in a much better position to form a majority governing coalition made up of nationalist, far-right and religious allies. Gantz had fewer potential factions to partner with.
Final results might not be in until Wednesday afternoon, or later, and the coalition building process could take weeks.
Hours before it was clear what the result would be, both Netanyahu and Gantz declared victory to their supporters, buoyed by exit polls showing they had strong figures.
Netanyahu said Tuesday was “a night of tremendous victory” and that he had already started talking to right-wing parties, who he said had agreed to recommend to the Israeli president that he form the next government.
Less than an hour prior, Gantz made an equally premature victory cry: “In elections there are losers; in elections there are winners; and we are the ones who won.”
Seeking a fifth term despite looming corruption indictments, the 69-year-old prime minister has faced stiff competition. Gantz had sought to present a unifying and centrist alternative to Netanyahu, who has spent ten consecutive years in power.Advertisement
The prime minister’s campaign had focused on how his government – one he claims has made Israel safe and prosperous – was in danger of falling to “leftists”. Israel left-wing and centrist parties, including the once-dominant Labor party, all appeared to have lost influence during the 2019 polls.
As in previous national elections, Netanyahu was also accused of exploiting anti-Arab sentiment and siding with extremist factions accused of racism against minorities.
Unlike Palestinians under military rule in the occupied West Bank, almost a fifth of Israel’s population is Arab and have the right to vote. But following calls within the community for an election boycott, Arab parties appeared to have lost three seats in the Knesset.
Likud was censured on Tuesday for sending monitors with body-cameras to polling stations with Arab constituents, which Arab politicians condemned as voter intimidation. A Likud party official defended the move, saying the cameras were deployed to ensure there would be no vote rigging.
In partial poll results, Jewish ultra-Orthodox parties seem to have gained three seats, while an new alliance of far-right parties took five seats. With a stable coalition, Netanyahu will this summer break a record set by the country’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, to become Israel’s longest-ever serving leader.
Ahead of election day, Gantz had hoped the prime minister might falter under the weight of three separate corruption cases, allegations Netanyahu dismisses as a “witch-hunt”.
But it was not clear if the calls for indictments, supported by the Israeli police, were enough to convince Israelis to turn away from “King Bibi”, the leader who has served on-off in high office since 1996.
“I know some things Bibi did are wrong. But I’m not looking for a rabbi. I’m looking for a leader,” said Yaakov Lemash, 76, at a polling station in Jerusalem on Tuesday. “It was the first time in my life that I voted Bibi,” said Yaakov, who had previously backed religious parties. “I want to tell Bibi, thank you … no government did what Bibi did for Israel.”
To hold on to voters, one of Netanayhu’s key messages had been how he managed to attain major concessions from Donald Trump. In the past two years, the US president has implemented the key demands of Israel’s hardline rightwing lobby, drastically slashing humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, declaring the contested city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and shuttered Palestinian diplomatic offices in Washington.
In a move largely seen in Israel as an election gift to Netanyahu, Trump also recently recognised Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967, breaking from global consensus that forbids territorial conquest during war.
In a pre-election interview, Netanyahu held up the Golan Heights declaration Trump signed and said: “Look at this, look at what we just got … this is what I did in one week.”
On the weekend ahead of the polls, Netanyahu energised his ultranationalist rightwing base, vowing to envelop Israeli sovereignty over Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, a move that Palestinians say would end their dreams for a state.
“From my perspective, any point of settlement is Israeli, and we have responsibility, as the Israeli government,” he said. “I will not uproot anyone, and I will not transfer sovereignty to the Palestinians.”
Zvi Pakter, a 64-year-old voter who lives in the settlement of Efrat in the occupied West Bank, said the annexation promise was “all election spin”. But he added recent developments such as Trump’s Jerusalem embassy declaration made him think Netanyahu might move ahead.
He said: “We have seen things we never thought would happen.”