In an apparent setback for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, exit polls showed the longtime Israeli leader falling short of securing a parliamentary majority with his hard-line allies in Tuesday’s election. The results posted by Israel’s three major TV stations indicated his political future could be in doubt.
The three stations all showed challenger Benny Gantz‘s centrist Blue and White party slightly ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud party. However, neither party controls a majority in the 120-seat parliament without the support of Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the midsize Yisrael Beitenu party.
Israeli exit polls are often imprecise and the final results, expected Wednesday, could shift in Netanyahu’s favor. But three stations all forecast similar scenarios.
Netanyahu had sought to secure a majority with his allies to secure immunity from an expected indictment on corruption charges. The results raise the likelihood of a unity government among the three parties, but it’s unclear what part Netanyahu could take in that.
The longest-serving leader in Israeli history was seeking a fourth consecutive term in office and fifth overall. But he faced a stiff challenge from Gantz.
Throughout an abbreviated, but alarmist campaign characterized by mudslinging and slogans condemned as racist, Netanyahu had tried to portray himself as a seasoned statesman who is uniquely qualified to lead the country through challenging times. Gantz tried to paint Netanyahu as divisive and scandal-plagued, offering himself as a calming influence and honest alternative.
After casting his ballot in Jerusalem, Netanyahu predicted the vote would be “very close.” Throughout the day, he frantically begged supporters to vote.
“It’s not in the bag. But if you go (vote), we will win,” Netanyahu blared through a megaphone to shoppers at a Jerusalem market after stopping at other Likud strongholds in the city.
Voting in his hometown of Rosh Haayin in central Israel, Gantz urged all Israelis to hope. “We will bring hope, we will bring change, without corruption, without extremism,” he said.
The election marks their second showdown of the year after drawing even in the previous one in April.
Attention will now focus on Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, who is to choose the candidate he believes has the best chance of forming a stable coalition. Rivlin is to consult with all parties in the coming days before making his decision.
Netanyahu is desperate to secure a narrow 61-seat majority in parliament with his hard-line religious and nationalist allies, who are expected to approve legislation that would grant him immunity from prosecution.
Israel’s attorney general has recommended pressing criminal charges against Netanyahu in three separate corruption cases, pending a long-delayed pre-trial hearing scheduled next month. Without immunity, Netanyahu would be under heavy pressure to step aside.
With his career on the line, Netanyahu has campaigned furiously and taken a late hard turn to the right in hopes of rallying his nationalist base.
Heavier turnout by Arab voters, many of whom stayed home in April, could hurt Netanyahu. After casting his ballot, the leader of the main Arab faction in parliament, Ayman Odeh, said Netanyahu was “obsessive” in his incitement toward Arabs. He said the answer was that his constituents “must be first-class voters on the way to becoming first-class citizens.”
Facebook on Tuesday punished Netanyahu’s page for the second time during the campaign, briefly suspending his automated chat function after it illegally published an opinion poll in the days before the election. By early evening, the chat page was working again. Last week, the account was suspended for 24 hours after a post claimed that Arabs want to “annihilate all of us.”
The page and the chatbot were posting aggressively Tuesday, with numerous videos of Netanyahu pleading with voters to turn out.
Turnout emerged as a key element for this election day, which is a national holiday aimed at encouraging participation. In April, turnout was about 69%, slightly below the 72% figure in a 2015 election.
As of 4 p.m., Israel’s central election committee said 44.3% of eligible voters had cast their ballots. It marked a slight increase over the figure at the same time in April.