Exit polls put Netanyahu in reach of thin majority, but only with Yamina’s help

Too-close-to-call surveys crown Bennett kingmaker, give 59 seats to anti-Netanyahu camp; Sa’ar collapses at 5-6 seats, Blue and White expected to get 7, Ra’am left out

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Activists in Tel Aviv watch the exit polls on elections night, on March 23, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Activists in Tel Aviv watch the exit polls on elections night, on March 23, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Exit polls on Tuesday night predicted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could form a razor-thin majority government of 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats following Israel’s fourth consecutive national election in two years — if Yamina leader Naftali Bennett joins his coalition.

Israel’s three major news networks released surveys at 10 p.m., as polling stations closed, with all showing the same trend, and all giving the anti-Netanyahu bloc 59 seats.

The exit polls, which have in the past been off the mark, and which will continually be updated throughout the night as votes are tallied, were too close to call as a victory for either side. The nail-biting outcome will come down to the actual results, which include hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots that are hard for pollsters to account for.

Channel 12 gave 53 seats to the pro-Netanyahu bloc, eight to kingmaker Yamina, and 59 to the anti-Netanyahu bloc; Channel 13 gave 54 seats to Netanyahu’s assured backers, seven to Yamina, and 59 to those opposed to the premier; the Kan public broadcaster also distributed the blocs 54-59, with Yamina again cast as tie-breaker with seven.

Party leaders ahead of the 2021 elections (from left): Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett, Benjamin Netanyahu, Gideon Sa’ar, Benny Gantz (Courtesy)

The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties and hard-right Religious Zionist Party are loyal to Netanyahu’s Likud, while the right-wing Yamina has been noncommittal on who it will endorse as prime minister. Yamina leader Naftali Bennett, however, on Monday ruled out joining a government led by Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.

Reacting to the exit poll results, Bennett said in a short statement Tuesday night that he would “do only what is good for the State of Israel.”

In the anti-Netanyahu bloc are the centrist Yesh Atid, right-wing New Hope, right-wing Yisrael Beytenu, center-left Labor, predominantly-Arab Joint List, and left-wing Meretz.

The three exit polls showed Netanyahu’s Likud by far the biggest party, with 31-33 seats. In second place was Yesh Atid, with Channel 12 and Kan giving it 18 seats and Channel 13 forecasting 16.

Defying predictions, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White was expected to comfortably clear the electoral threshold with seven or eight seats, while all three surveys suggested the Islamist Ra’am would not receive the minimum votes to enter parliament. With turnout down considerably in Arab areas, the Joint List was projected to win eight or nine seats, down from the 15 it had with Ra’am in the outgoing Knesset.

Among Netanyahu’s rivals on the right, former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party was poised to pick up five or six seats, markedly underperforming pre-election surveys, while Yisrael Beytenu was expected to win 6-8. The prime minister’s allies United Torah Judaism and Shas were expected to retain their current standing, with 6-7 and 8-9 seats, respectively.

Left-wing Meretz crossed the threshold in all three polls, climbing to 6-7 seats, while the center-left Labor was predicted to win seven.

All the network surveys predicted that Religious Zionism would win 6-7 seats after Netanyahu engineered a union between its members and lobbied for their support, earning a higher-than-expected outcome for the far-right list. Religious Zionism includes the extremist Otzma Yehudit party, led by Kahanist Itamar Ben Gvir, and the Noam anti-LGBT party.

Yamina on Tuesday night said that based on the initial exit polls, it will have to have a “serious discussion” about who to back as prime minister, saying it will make the decision “that is best for the public that voted for us.”

Speaking to The Times of Israel moments after the exit polls showed that neither the pro- or anti-Netanyahu bloc had received 61 seats, and that Yamina would be able to give either side a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, party spokesman Moshe Basus said, “We will hope for the best and do the best by what the public gave us.

“Once the results are final, we will sit down and have a serious discussion on what is best for the public that voted for us,” Basus said.

Party leaders in Israel’s March 23, 2021 elections. Top row left to right: Itamar Ben Gvir (Otzma Yehudit, part of the Religious Zionism party); Bezalel Smotrich (Religious Zionism); Naftali Bennett (Yamina); Aryeh Deri (Shas); Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism). Middle row left to right: Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu); Gideon Sa’ar (New Hope); Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud); Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid); Merav Michaeli (Labor). Bottom row left to right: Benny Gantz (Blue and White); Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz); Ayman Odeh (Joint List); Mansour Abbas (Ra’am); Yaron Zelekha (New Economy party). (All photos: Flash90)

Israel has been rocked by political turmoil for over two years. Two rounds of elections, in April 2019 and September 2019, failed to yield a winner, while a short-lived unity government formed after the third vote in March 2020 collapsed after less than a year. Tuesday’s election was largely regarded as a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership, including his handling of the coronavirus crisis and his trial on corruption charges.

Tuesday’s vote saw the lowest turnout since 2013, with 67.2 percent. The low turnout was particularly pronounced among Arab Israelis.

In the previous three elections since April 2019, turnout had actually been steadily rising. The April 2019 election saw a turnout of 68.41%. In September 2019 it rose to 69.8%, and in March 2020 to 71.5%. This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic limiting overseas travel, more Israelis were at home on election day. Last year some 100,000 Israelis, mostly young, were abroad when the vote was held.

Tuesday’s vote was the second to take place under the shadow of the pandemic. The previous one, in March 2020, played out with the coronavirus storm only just beginning, and relatively few cases reported in Israel.

Since then, the virus has swamped the country, killing over 6,000 people and crashing the economy.

A Likud supporter in front of a video of Benjamin Netanyahu at a party event in Jerusalem on March 23, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

But the outbreak in Israel is now receding amid a world-leading vaccination campaign spearheaded by Netanyahu, who has been in office for 12 years. On Tuesday, the number of serious COVID cases fell below 500 for the first time in three months. The historic normalization agreements Netanyahu reached with Arab states since the last election were also seen as playing in his favor.

The prime minister, however, is set to begin the evidence stage of his corruption trial next week, where he faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He denies any wrongdoing. As of April 5, hearings will be held three times a week, from Monday through Wednesday, from 9 a.m. until 3:30 p.m.

After the elections, the head of each party that makes it into the 120-member Knesset is invited by the president to recommend their preferred choice of prime minister. The president then makes a selection, based on these recommendations, of who is best-placed to form and lead a governing coalition, normally a candidate recommended by at least 61 lawmakers.

President Reuven Rivlin has said he’ll task a lawmaker with forming a government before April 7. The candidate will have 28 days to cobble together a coalition, with the possibility of seeking an additional 14-day extension.

Central Elections Committee director Orly Adas said last week that her committee was still devising a plan to speedily count the ballots and verify the results with the number of absentee ballots expected to be double the normal amount. The week-long Passover festival also poses a challenge, starting three days after the election. Adas said the goal is to complete an initial tally within two days.

Raoul Wootliff and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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