Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said early Tuesday that he would continue to fight, as exit polls predicted his centrist party falling several seats behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud in Monday’s national election, eliciting shock and disappointment among his supporters.
As polls closed at 10 p.m. on Monday after the third Knesset election within a year, three television exit polls predicted significant gains for Likud, giving it as many as 37 seats and putting it within a hair’s breadth of forming a governing coalition. Blue and White, meanwhile, was predicted to fall to 32-34 seats.
“We don’t bullshit. I understand the sense of disappointment. If these are the results, it is not the results that will return Israel the the right path,” Gantz told supporters gathered in Tel Aviv.
But he urged supporters to wait for the final results.
“At the end of the day, the results may have the same political significance as the election results from April, almost a year ago. In those elections, even when it seemed we were headed for the opposition, we remained united, strong and committed to our path. We will remain strong and united going forward,” he said.
Gantz was referring to the elections 11 months ago, when Likud and Blue and White tied on 35 seats each, Netanyahu’s bloc won 60 seats in all, and the prime minister, unable to form a coalition, called elections rather than let Gantz attempt to do so. In September, Netanyahu and Gantz both tried in vain to muster a majority, prompting Monday’s three-peat.
“I’ll continue to fight for [our] way for you,” Gantz wrote on Twitter immediately after the exit polls were released.
All of the TV exit polls initially gave the pro-Netanyahu rightist-Haredi coalition 60 seats, one short of a 61-seat majority. As exit polls were amended overnight with additional data, Channels 12 and 13 gave the right-wing bloc 59 seats, with another seat moving over to Blue and White-led bloc, which was still several seats behind the right. However, with neither side reaching a 61-seat majority, the projections appeared to signal that the deadlock that has frozen Israel’s government for over a year could continue.
Final results, which could still shift significantly, were only expected later Tuesday.
Speaking to The Times of Israel after Gantz’s speech, both MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Handel of the Telem faction within Blue and White denied reports that they would consider jumping-ship to help Netanyahu form a government.
“It’s complete rubbish. There is no truth to it whatsoever,” Hauser said. “We are a union of three parties [making up Blue and White] that ran as a unit to present an alternative [to Likud]. We will continue to do that.”
“There is no such possibility and it will not happen,” Hendel, speaking separately from Hauser, said of the idea he would support a Netanyahu government.
Alluding to the possibility of Israel heading to a fourth round of elections in the fall, Gantz, in his speech, said that he was “not scared of the long path. … Blue and White will continue to fight for the sake of Israel.”
Looking to the future, Gantz said Israel “needs healing, unity, reconciliation; it longs for a unifying leadership. And we will continue to offer that to the Israeli public we have come to serve.”
Referring to Netanyahu’s imminent corruption trial, he said: “Regardless of the results of the election, criminal processes are decided only in the courtroom. In two weeks’ time Benjamin Netanyahu will sit in a courtroom over serious crimes.”
Gantz then vowed: “We will be in the streets. We won’t let anyone destroy our country, we won’t let anyone divide us, dismantle Israeli society or crush our democracy.” At the same time, he added, “We respect those who voted for others. Blue and White has only just begun its path. We have a long road to walk yet.”
Ahead of Gantz’s speech, activists appeared downtrodden over the exit poll results.
“We lost. If these results are final, we lost,” said one activist wearing a Blue and White t-shirt emblazoned with the party’s slogan, “We must move forward.”
“It hurts,” he said.
Blue and White MK Yoel Razvozov told the Times of Israel, “It’s too early to reach conclusions” about the party’s next steps.
“These are not final results. They don’t look good. But we will wait and see. We will be smarter when we know the final results,” he said, speaking at the party’s mostly empty election night headquarters in Tel Aviv.
“We can’t speculate now. We need to take a breath and then act correctly,” said the lawmaker. Insisting that the party would not break up, he said, “We have one country and we need to fight for it. That’s why we came to politics.”
Blue and White picked up 35 seats in the April elections, tied with Likud. In September, it won 33 seats, surpassing Netanyahu’s party with 32. Neither party, however, was able to form a majority government and talks on forming a unity government failed to yield a coalition.
‘It’s not a good night’
The Blue and White election night headquarters remained almost empty until around half an hour before Gantz was set to speak at around 1:30 a.m, save the hundreds of journalists filling the bleachers.
On the main floor, empty of activists and MKs, three screens showing the main television channels served as a repeated reminder of the party’s weak projected showing.
Among activists, a stunned silence prevailed, with activist Nachum Schwartzberg saying the “main feeling” was “disappointment.”
“The main disappointment is that people ignored the disgraceful campaign of the Likud and the three indictments against Netanyahu,” he said. “We have to wait until the final results, but it’s not a good night.”
Party officials were equally crestfallen, describing the results as a “real blow,” but trying to remain positive.
“No one is going to give up hope for a better future,” one party official said earnestly.
The party also took fire from the leftist Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance, predicted to fall to six or seven seats, which blamed its poor showing on Blue and White’s decision to campaign against it despite an agreement to work together.
According to projected results, a Gantz-led coalition supported by the Arab-majority Joint List will only muster 54-55 seats.
Likud leaders, meanwhile, broadcast optimism.
Justice Minister Amir Ohana, speaking to the Kan public broadcaster, said Likud “has a few options” to win over defecting lawmakers from across the aisle to round out its majority, and indicated he expects some Blue and White lawmakers to jump ship.
“I won’t name names,” he said, but expressed confidence there would not be a fourth round of elections. “The public has spoken in a very clear way,” Ohana added.
“The people had its say,” Likud’s Nir Barkat echoed to Channel 12. “Now all the parties need to unite and help us form a coalition to deal with the nation’s challenges. We need a budget, we have a deficit. We can’t go to a fourth election. Stop dealing with yesterday, we have to deal with the country’s problems.”
Netanyahu, he said, “will try to form a coalition as broad as possible.”
Blue and White’s no. 5, MK Avi Nissenkorn, admitted that the centrist faction was “disappointed,” but told Channel 13 that “Netanyahu still doesn’t have a coalition. We’ll wait for final results.”
Blue and White MK Meir Cohen agreed the results were “disappointing,” but urged pundits to “wait for final results. And I don’t believe there will be defectors. We say clearly, we won’t sit with Netanyahu.”
The vote has largely been seen as a referendum on Netanyahu, who will go on trial on corruption charges, including bribery, on March 17. If Netanyahu is tasked with forming the next coalition, the High Court of Justice will likely have to rule whether someone facing criminal charges can do that.
The law currently only says a prime minister must step down if convicted with all appeals exhausted — a process that will take at least three or four years — but a previous ruling by Israel’s top court has prevented ministers from serving if they are facing a criminal indictment, and it could deliver another such precedent.
Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman, whose six to eight seats may hold the key to a Likud victory or could tip the scales in favor of Blue and White, said Monday night he would not sacrifice “one iota of our principles,” urging observers to wait until real results are in, since the exit polls showed figures too close to call.
He also explicitly ruled out joining a Likud-led coalition that included ultra-Orthodox parties.
The party’s no. 2, MK Oded Forer, said it would stick to its secularist demands in future talks. “This is not about positions, it’s about principles,” said Forer.