Committee publishes ‘almost final’ results; Blue and White leads Likud 33-31

All votes have been counted except for 14 polling stations where there were reports of suspicious activity on election day; officials caution results could still change

Blue and White party leaders, from the left, Gabi Ashkenazi, Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya'alon greet their supporters at party headquarters after the first results of the elections in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Blue and White party leaders, from the left, Gabi Ashkenazi, Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya'alon greet their supporters at party headquarters after the first results of the elections in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

The Central Election Committee published early Friday what it said were the “almost final” results from Tuesday’s election, with Benny Gantz’s Blue and White centrist party maintaining a two-seat lead over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud.

The committee said that 99.8% of the votes had been tallied, with the exception of those from 14 polling booths where irregular activities had been recorded on election day, which were still being investigated.

Israelis voted at more than 10,000 polling stations.

The “almost final” results gave Blue and White 33 seats to Likud’s 31. Third was the Joint List alliance of Arab-majority parties at 13, followed by the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas with nine and United Torah Judaism with eight.

Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu also had eight seats. Rounding out the list were Yamina with seven seats, Labor-Gesher with six and the Democratic Camp with five.

The center-left bloc, including the predominantly Arab Joint List — which has never been a member of the government — has increased its power to 57 seats, with the right-wing and religious bloc at 55. Neither has the 61-seat majority necessary to form a coalition, leaving Yisrael Beytenu in the kingmaker position.

The committee stressed that the votes were not yet the final results, which will be handed to President Reuven Rivlin on September 25.

“The committee reserves the right to examine the results further and so the results published here are subject to changes,” it said.

The updated results came after the tallying of some 180,000 so-called double envelope votes cast by diplomats, security forces, handicapped citizens, hospital patients and staff, and prisoners.

Those votes make up some five percent of the overall vote. Their tallying began at 1 a.m. Thursday and ended around 10 a.m., the Central Election Committee said, but feeding all the results into the computerized system took more time.

The rival parties are no closer to forming a majority coalition, raising the possibility of negotiations for a unity government.

It remains unclear whether Yisrael Beytenu, the “kingmaker” in the race with eight seats, will back Netanyahu or Gantz for prime minister as it pushes for a unity coalition with both major parties. The Joint List has not decided whether to back Gantz or refrain from recommending a candidate from prime minister.

The latest figures suggest the impasse from the previous elections on April 9 could continue.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) waves as he addresses supporters at his Likud party’s electoral campaign headquarters early on September 18, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

A unity government encompassing the two major parties continued to look like the most likely way out of the deadlock, though Blue and White has insisted that Netanyahu — who faces indictment on corruption charges, pending a hearing — must step down as Likud leader if such a coalition is to be formed.

Liberman on Wednesday reiterated his insistence on a unity government comprising his party, Blue and White and Likud, and said he wouldn’t start coalition negotiations with any party unless it accepts his list of demands for secularist policy changes.

The next several weeks are expected to heavily feature coalition wrangling, as parties jockey to form a government.

In the last elections in April, Blue and White managed to tie Likud, but Netanyahu, who had more recommendations from potential allies, was given the first chance to form a government. He failed when Liberman refused to join unless a bill formalizing exemptions to mandatory military service for yeshiva students was passed as is, a demand flatly rejected by the premier’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners. The mandate never passed to Gantz, with Netanyahu instead engineering Tuesday’s new elections.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman tours the Sarona Market shopping center in Tel Aviv on election day, September 17, 2019. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Rivlin, who decides whom to task with forming a government, has promised to do what he can to avoid a third round of voting. He begins consultations with representatives of the parties on Sunday afternoon.

Voter turnout on Tuesday was higher than in the elections earlier this year, bucking predictions of a drop in participation. Turnout as polls closed was at 69.4 percent, up from 68.5% in April.

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