As voting ended in Tuesday’s Knesset elections, all three exit polls published by the main television channels showed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bloc of supporters several seats short of the 61 seats needed to form a coalition, meaning that there would be no obvious winner in the race to the premiership.
Yoaz Hendel, an MK from the opposition centrist Blue and White alliance, declared that the polls showed “the era of Netanyahu is over.”
A Netanyahu loyalist, Likud’s Tzachi Hanegbi, by contrast, said he was “convinced” that the exit polls were wrong “and Netanyahu will continue to lead us for the next five years.”
The right-wing bloc — made up of Netanyahu’s Likud party, the religious right-wing Yamina and the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism — was predicted to get between 54 and 57 seats in the 120-member parliament. The center-left bloc was forecast to get 42-45, while the Arab parties increased their power to 11-13.
Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, which has urged a unity government with Likud and Blue and White and refused to commit to backing either side, was projected to get between 8 and 10 seats, sharply up from his current 5, making him a potential kingmaker.
The far-right Otzma Yehudit party, which had been predicted in several opinion polls in recent weeks to pass the 3.25 percent electoral threshold, did not make it into the Knesset in any of the exit polls, which likely denied the right-wing bloc votes that could potentially have given it a majority.
The centrist Blue and White alliance, headed by Netanyahu’s main rival Benny Gantz, was predicted to be level or slightly ahead of Likud in all three exit polls, although Gantz’s chances of forming a coalition without Likud are extremely slim.
The Channel 12 exit poll put Blue and White in the lead with 34 Knesset seats; Likud with 33; the Joint List alliance of Arab and Arab-majority parties at 11; Yisrael Beytenu, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina at 8 each; and Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Camp at 5 each.
According to the Channel 13 exit poll, Blue and White was projected to get 33 seats, Likud 31, Joint List 13, Shas 9, Yisrael Beytenu and United Torah Judaism 8, and Yamina, Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Camp 6 each.
The Kan exit poll was the only one to predict a tie between Blue and White and Likud at 32 each. Joint List was given 12, Yisrael Beytenu 10, Shas 9, United Torah Judaism 8, Yamina 7, and Labor-Gesher and Democratic Camp 5 each.
Almost all of the 11,163 polling stations closed at 10 p.m. — several in the Druze village of Yarka remained open until midnight due to being shuttered for hours in the middle of the day over suspected voter fraud — after a heated campaign season reached its climax with a tense election day, in which almost all parties attempted to galvanize their base by claiming they were in dire straits due to low turnout among their voters, in what has now become a traditional election day “gevalt” campaign.
The vote was the second in months, an unprecedented rerun election after Netanyahu failed to form a coalition following a vote in April. It drew to a close a bitter campaign that saw both Likud and Blue and White sling mud at each other.
Exit polls have proven very inaccurate in the recent past. In the previous election in April, the three surveys diverged wildly, with the Channel 12 one predicting Blue and White would get four seats more than Likud and the right-wing bloc would get just 60, while in reality Likud and Blue and White ended with the same number of seats and the right-wing bloc got 65. In 2015, the exit polls saw a tie between Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union and Netanyahu’s Likud, while in actuality Likud had won six seats more than Zionist Union.
Voter turnout on Tuesday outpaced voting levels from the elections earlier this year, bucking predictions of a drop in participation in the repeat poll. Turnout as of 8 p.m. hit 63.7 percent, the Central Elections Committee said, an increase of 2.4 points over the same time of day during the April race.
The closely fought election pitted Likud against Blue and White, but also offered citizens a choice of 28 other diverse political parties, 20 of which weren’t considered to have a realistic chance of clearing the 3.25% threshold needed to enter the Knesset.
The final official results are only due on September 25, giving way to weeks or even months of coalition wrangling.
The decision regarding who will be the next prime minister ultimately lies with President Reuven Rivlin, who will meet with the leaders of all the parties that cleared the electoral threshold, hear who each of them recommends as prime minister, and determine which candidate has the best chance of forming a coalition of at least 61 out of the 120 elected Knesset members.
Israel has never had a single-party government, and the next coalition, like the last one, seems certain to be a product of tense negotiations among about half a dozen parties that may take days or weeks.
After April’s elections, Liberman — whose party had been thought at the time to be among Netanyahu’s automatic backers — refused to join a government led by Netanyahu 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. That impasse helped trigger the new elections.
In the run-up to Tuesday’s vote, Liberman has vowed to force a unity government that excludes ultra-Orthodox parties.
After April’s vote, Netanyahu, who in July became Israel’s longest serving prime minister, came close to losing power when his Likud party along with its right-wing and religious allies failed to form a coalition. Rather than allow another candidate a shot at doing so, he opted for a second election by calling on the Knesset to dissolve itself.
Netanyahu has avoided committing to returning the mandate to form a government to Rivlin if he again fails to build a ruling coalition.
Hanging over Netanyahu is a likely indictment in three corruption cases, including one charge of bribery, pending a hearing. While trying to form a government after April’s vote, Netanyahu was reported to have conditioned, or tacitly linked, entry to the post-election coalition on support for immunity arrangements, including possible new legislation, that would shelter him from prosecution as long as he remains in office.
Netanyahu has denied seeking such legislation but has refused to rule out seeking parliamentary immunity from his coalition partners should he be given the mandate to form a government again.
Confounding Rivlin’s decision on who to task with forming a coalition, Netanyahu is set to face a pre-indictment hearing with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on October 2, the final day that the president must choose a candidate for prime minister.