Israeli exit polls show Netanyahu on the verge of winning a narrow majority
Former Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu was on the verge of a triumphant return to office in Israel, as initially exit polls suggested he may have won a narrow majority in the country’s fifth national election in less than four years.
If the exit polls are correct – a big if – Netanyahu and his political allies he appears to be on pace to win a majority of seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
As expected, the first exit polls from the country’s three main broadcasters showed late Tuesday that no party had won enough seats to govern alone, meaning a coalition government would need to be formed.
Exit polls predict pro-Netanyahu parties will take 61 or 62 of the 120 seats in parliament. The alliance consists of Netanyahu’s Likud party, Religious Zionism/Jewish Power, Shas and United Torah Judaism.
The alliance supporting current acting Prime Minister Yair Lapid, made up of Yesh Atid, National Unity, Yisrael Beiteinu, Labor, Meretz and Ra’am, was poised to take 54 or 55 seats, according to exit polls.
The Arab Hadash/Taal party, which is unlikely to support either side, was set to secure four seats, exit polls showed.
The election was marked by possibly the highest turnout since 1999. The Central Election Commission said two-thirds of eligible voters had cast their ballots by 8pm – two hours before the polls closed.
Netanyahu spent the final weeks of the campaign hurtling around the country in a truck converted into a traveling stage enclosed in bulletproof glass. Pro-Netanyahu ads – and ads showing his opponents looking shadowy – plastered the sides of the bus.
It is not yet certain that Netanyahu is back, after Lapid outwitted him after last year’s election.
Exit polls are just projections based on interviews with voters on Tuesday, not official results. Results can – and have in the past – changed on election night. The official results may not be final until Wednesday or even Thursday.
When the official results are announced, President Isaac Herzog will invite the politician he thinks is most likely to be able to form a government to open coalition talks.
The return of Netanyahu to the head of the government could mean fundamental changes in Israeli society.
Netanyahu’s government would almost certainly include the emerging Jewish nationalist alliance Religious Zionism/Jewish Power, whose leaders include Itamar Ben Gvir, once convicted of inciting racism and supporting terrorism.
Asked by CNN on Tuesday about fears he would lead a far-right government if returned to office, Netanyahu responded with an apparent reference to the Ra’am party, which made history last year by becoming the first Arab party ever to join an Israeli government coalition.
“We don’t want a government with the Muslim Brotherhood, who support terrorism, deny the existence of Israel and are quite hostile to the United States. This is what we will bring,” Netanyahu told CNN in English at his polling station in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu’s allies have also talked about introducing changes to the justice system. That could put an end to Netanyahu’s corruption trial, where he has pleaded not guilty.
Netanyahu himself was one of the main issues not only in Tuesday’s election but in the four that preceded it, with voters – and politicians – divided into camps based on whether they wanted the man universally known as Bibi in power or not.
Part of the difficulty in building a stable government over the past four elections has been that even some political parties that agree with Netanyahu on these issues refuse to work with him for their own personal or political reasons.
Whether the exit polls are accurate or not, they are only exit polls, not official results.
Getting the official results will take time – they could be ready as early as Wednesday, but it could be Thursday before the final makeup of Israel’s 25th Knesset is clear.
That’s partly because parties must win at least 3.25% of the total vote to win any Knesset seats at all, a threshold established in an effort to make coalition building easier by keeping very small parties out of the legislature.
To determine how many seats each party will receive, election officials must first determine which parties passed the threshold. They can then calculate how many votes are needed to win one seat in the Knesset and allocate seats to parties based on the number of votes they received.
That’s the point where the real hesitancy and dealing begins.
There is a small chance that even if the election results look like a deadlock, a smart negotiator can put together a surprising coalition, as Lapid did last year.
On the other hand, even if on paper one or the other leader appears to have the support to form a majority government, they will still have to cajole smaller parties into coalition agreements.
And those smaller parties will have demands – control of certain ministries, financing of projects or programs important to their voters, adoption of new laws or elimination of old ones.
Potential prime ministers will have to balance the competing demands of rival coalition partners, each of whom knows they hold the keys to putting the head of government in office.
And whoever becomes prime minister – if anyone – will face the same problems.
The cost of living is skyrocketing in Israel as in many other places, and energy and grocery bills are rising. A poll by the Israel Democracy Institute this summer found that a party’s economic platform is by far the most frequently cited factor in choosing who to vote for. Almost half (44%) of Israeli voters said it was the most important factor, far ahead of a quarter (24%) who said the party leader was the deciding factor.
Any new prime minister will also have to deal with a conflict between Israel and Palestinian militias that has claimed more lives on both sides this year than at any time since 2015.
The Israel Defense Forces have been carrying out frequent raids in the occupied West Bank for months – particularly in Jenin and Nablus – saying they are trying to arrest known attackers and seize weapons.
As a strategy, it does not appear to have reduced the level of violence: At least one Israeli civilian was killed near Hebron in the West Bank on Saturday, and others were wounded in the same incident – as were two medics who responded, one Israeli and one Palestinian. A day later, a Palestinian rammed his car into five Israeli soldiers near Jericho. Both Palestinian attackers were killed, in a cycle of violence that will have to be faced by the new prime minister – if, indeed, there is a new prime minister as a result of Tuesday’s vote.
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