Final votes being tallied, with Likud, Blue and White still neck-and-neck
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Final votes being tallied, with Likud, Blue and White still neck-and-neck

Election committee begins counting ‘double envelopes’ with votes of soldiers, prisoners and diplomats; no change in seat distribution, coalition deadlock persists

Illustrative: Israelis count the remaining ballots from soldiers and absentees at the parliament in Jerusalem, a day after the general elections, April 10, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Illustrative: Israelis count the remaining ballots from soldiers and absentees at the parliament in Jerusalem, a day after the general elections, April 10, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The Central Elections Committee began counting the final votes early Thursday morning, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main challenger, Benny Gantz, still caught in an apparent deadlock after Tuesday’s elections.

At 1 a.m officials began tallying the 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. The vast majority of them are the votes of soldiers, which traditionally skew to the right (and usually don’t go to ultra-Orthodox or Arab parties) and could affect the final distribution of seats.

According to results released at 5:17 a.m. Blue and White was still slightly ahead, having garnered 1,035,635 votes compared to 1,010,246 for Likud.

Itzhak Gerberg, Israeli Ambassador to New Zealand casts his vote on September 5, 2019 in Wellington, New Zealand (Israel Foreign Ministry)

However, after several hours of counting the double envelopes there was no change to the number of seats, with Gantz’s Blue and White party still projected to win 33, keeping its slight edge over Netanyahu’s Likud party at 32 seats.

Counting the double envelopes is a slow task, with officials having to make sure the voters did not vote on their bases or posts and again at their homes, and is expected to be completed by Thursday afternoon.

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

The Likud-led bloc includes Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina, and would give Netanyahu 56 backers for the premiership, five seats shy of the 61 needed for a majority in the Knesset.

In the Gantz-led bloc, the Blue and White leader would pick up 44 endorsements for prime minister, from his own faction, left-wing Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Camp.

It remains unclear whether Yisrael Beytenu, the “kingmaker” in the race with eight seats, will back Netanyahu or Gantz as it pushes for a unity coalition with both major parties. The predominantly Arab Joint List list, with its 12 seats, has not decided whether to back Gantz.

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

The two seats that went to Likud and Blue and White in the adjusted totals late Wednesday came at the expense of Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, which dropped from 9 seats to 8, and the Joint List, which fell from 13 seats to 12.

As of Wednesday evening, the near-total (though still unofficial) results were as follows:

Blue and White – 33
Likud – 32
Joint List – 12
Shas – 9
Yisrael Beytenu – 8
United Torah Judaism – 8
Yamina – 7
Labor-Gesher – 6
Democratic Camp – 5

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

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.

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)

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.

President Reuven Rivlin, who decides whom to task with forming a government, has promised to do what he can to avoid a third round of voting.

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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