Absentee ballots grant Meretz extra seat, Joint List down to 13

Partial results from over 200,000 votes counted overnight also show UTJ down one seat; final count to be published later Thursday

Counting ballots from soldiers and absentees at the Knesset in Jerusalem, a day after the general elections, March 18, 2015. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Counting ballots from soldiers and absentees at the Knesset in Jerusalem, a day after the general elections, March 18, 2015. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

A partial count of over 200,000 absentee ballots overnight Wednesday-Thursday indicated that Meretz took five seats in parliament and not four as results from 99 percent of the votes showed on Wednesday.

As the remaining 1% of votes were counted, the Arab Joint List was down one seat from 14 to 13 but retained its status as the third largest party in parliament. United Torah Judaism, the ultra-Orthodox party that initially garnered seven mandates, was down to six, Israel Radio reported.

The absentee ballots were from soldiers, prisoners, medical personnel, those with medical conditions and Israeli representatives in missions abroad.

The Central Elections Committee was expected to publish a final tally later Thursday but a significant change to the outcome of the elections was not expected.

The ruling Likud party was set to remain at 30 seats, with main rival Zionist Union at 24 seats. Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu still had 10 seats, and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid 11. Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home still had eight seats, Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman was expected to remain at six seats and Shas at seven mandates.

On Wednesday, when it looked like Meretz had four seats, party head Zahava Gal-on said she would prepare to resign.

“If in the final results, it turns out that Meretz got only 4 seats, then I will resign from the Knesset in favor of Tamar Zandberg,” Gal-on said, referring to No. 5 on the faction list.

Gal-on added that she would remain as chairman of Meretz to facilitate a “smooth transfer of the job” — presumably to party No. 2 Ilan Gilon.

If however Meretz was to regain a fifth seat, as the final 1% of votes filter in, then she would mull staying on, she added.

Overnight Tuesday-Wednesday, after a close-fought campaign, Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party confounded expectations and won 30 of the 120 seats in parliament, against 24 for Isaac Herzog’s center-left Zionist Union.

It was a victory Netanyahu himself described as “against all the odds,” proving him once again to be Israel’s master of political brinkmanship.

“I am moved by the weight of the responsibility the people of Israel have placed on my shoulders,” he said on a visit to the Western Wall, the holiest site for Jewish prayer.

“I appreciate this decision, of the citizens of Israel, to elect me and my partners.”

After Herzog conceded defeat, the Netanyahu camp set about forming a new government “within two to three weeks.”

It said Netanyahu had already spoken with right-wing and religious party leaders whose support he will need to form a coalition.

But Herzog ruled out a broader unity government.

“Going into opposition is the only realistic option facing us,” he said.

President Reuven Rivlin’s office said he would start taking soundings from political party leaders from Sunday on who they would back to form the next government.

“It is the president’s intention to open the round of consultations already at the beginning of next week, out of an effort to conclude the process of establishing the new government as early as possible,” it said.

Under Israel’s electoral system, the prime minister is not necessarily the leader of the party that gains most seats but whoever can build a coalition commanding a majority of at least 61 seats in parliament.

Netanyahu is likely to favor a narrow right-wing coalition but for that he will need the support of kingmaker Moshe Kahlon, a Likud defector whose newly formed center-right Kulanu party won 10 seats..

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