If exit polls are right, Netanyahu is in trouble. But they’ve been wrong before

PM has no clear path to a majority. He’d have to woo MKs who’ve rebuffed him. His control of Likud will be tested as never before… Unless the real results are very different

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Montage of prominent Israeli politicians, ahead of September 17 elections. (Flash90)
Montage of prominent Israeli politicians, ahead of September 17 elections. (Flash90)

Showing Benjamin Netanyahu several seats short of a clear path to a majority coalition, the three TV exit polls published at the end of voting on Tuesday night suggested that Israeli politics have been thrown wide open after a decade of his rule. If, that is, they are accurate.

Five months ago, two of the three polls proved fairly close to the actual results, while the third, on Channel 12, significantly overestimated the prime ministerial prospects of Blue and White centrist party leader Benny Gantz. Tuesday’s polls, by contrast, were fairly consistent, and all of them showed Netanyahu in trouble.

Blue and White immediately hailed a revolution. “The Netanyahu era is over,” said one of its Knesset members, former Netanyahu aide Yoaz Hendel. Netanyahu’s Likud, by contrast, was unsurprisingly taking a wait-and-see attitude. Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, for instance, professed he was “convinced” that the genuine results, flowing in over the next few hours, would show the TV polls to be wrong, and that Netanyahu would continue to lead Israel “for the next five years.”

Indeed, past elections have frequently seen Likud support underestimated in TV polls, and rising with the real results. Most famously, in 1996, Labor’s Shimon Peres, assuming the exit polls were accurate, went to bed believing he had won the election, and woke up to find that Netanyahu had narrowly defeated him.

A slight shift in the numbers, after all, can have significant consequences for the balance of power between competing parties, and most importantly between competing blocs of allied parties. Tuesday’s exit polls, for instance, showed the extremist Otzma Yehudit failing to clear the 3.25% threshold for Knesset representation on the right, while Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Camp were not far above the threshold, heading for five seats each, on the left. Shifts in those numbers would remake the electoral arithmetic.

If the polls prove reasonably true, however, in order to retain power Netanyahu would have to partner with allies who have insisted on avoiding him thus far. Were Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman — heading for 8-10 seats in the exit polls, and thus a potential big winner in these elections — to join forces with Netanyahu and his other right-wing and ultra-Orthodox allies, for instance, the prime minister would have a majority. But it was Liberman who helped precipitate these elections by refusing to sit in government with the ultra-Orthodox after April’s elections, and he reiterated that commitment, pledging to work for a “liberal, nationalist, wide” government, in a speech two hours after the polls closed.

Gantz, leader of Blue and White, for his part, said during the campaign that he sought to lead a “secular unity coalition” — including Likud and Yisrael Beytenu. But he also said it would have to be a Likud that discards Netanyahu, who Gantz charges has long overstayed his welcome, especially given the corruption indictment the prime minister may soon face.

Such a coalition, should it take shape, would put the ultra-Orthodox parties out of government. It could leave the right-wing Yemina out of government, with major implications for the settlement movement, so recently promised imminent annexation by Netanyahu.

After he failed to muster a majority following April’s elections, despite even trying to lure away members of the Labor party, Netanyahu ordered his Likud MKs to vote to dissolve the Knesset rather than allow Gantz the chance to try to form a government. They all dutifully did so.

If the exit polls prove accurate, and Netanyahu again finds himself several seats short of a coalition majority, and unable to pry away support from unlikely parts of the political spectrum, a key question will be whether his newly elected Likud Knesset members will again stick resolutely with him.

In the immediate aftermath of the exit polls, numerous Likud MKs insisted Netanyahu would remain their leader. They too, like the rest of Israel, of course, were awaiting the real results.

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