Avigdor Liberman, the head of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, said Tuesday night he would not back a candidate for prime minister until the final results for the national election are released later this week.
Kulanu Party head Moshe Kahlon also initially said he would wait until making a decision, but later indicated he would back Benjamin Netanyahu, easing the prime minister’s bid to remain in power.
Israel’s three main television channels predicted what looked to be a clear path to victory for Netanyahu, assuming parties on the right indeed clear the electoral threshold and agree to join his coalition.
Netanyahu’s office said he was deep in talks to form a coalition early Wednesday, with ultra-Orthodox and far-right parties lining up behind him.
But with the exit polls all from certain, political newcomer Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White party also claimed victory and set to work putting together a potential coalition.
According to the exit polls from Tuesday’s elections, Kulanu is projected to earn between four and five seats in the next Knesset, while Yisrael Beytenu is expected to get between four and six. However, both parties said they expected to pick up at least one more seat once all votes are counted.
Together, these parties could help push either the conservative Netanyahu or centrist Gantz into the premiership.
Without Kulanu and Yisrael Beytenu, a right-wing bloc was predicted to get between 51 and 58 seats in the 120-member parliament, while the center-left bloc was forecast to get 47-50 seats. The Arab parties, which would likely not join any coalition, won between 6 and 12 seats — a very wide gap, amid earlier reports of low turnout among Israeli Arabs.
For now, Yisrael Beytenu appeared to be officially waiting for the final count.
“The gaps [between the exit polls] are too great, the picture is too fuzzy,” said Liberman, a former defense minister who helped precipitate early elections with his decision to quit Netanyahu’s coalition last year.
Israel’s exit polls have not always served as an accurate representation of voting patterns. The 2015 elections, for instance, saw a six-seat swing from the exit polls to the actual results, with the left-wing Zionist Union losing three spots and the Likud gaining three. Pollsters do not survey voters during the last two hours of the election, nor do they speak to the hundreds of thousands of soldier voters.
Liberman said once all the votes are counted, he will determine which party — Likud or Blue and White — best serves his agenda and join with it.
The Yisrael Beytenu leader was reportedly not responding to phone calls from Netanyahu until the final results were released.
Kahlon said onstage at his party’s event in Tel Aviv that he had spoken with Netanyahu and agreed to “meet him after the real results are in and not one minute before.”
However, upon exiting the venue, Kahlon, a longtime Likud member who broke off to form Kulanu for the last election, said that he was likely going to back Netanyahu for prime minister.
“I am a member of the national camp, I will recommend Benjamin Netanyahu,” Kahlon said, while walking to his car as he left the event.
Kahlon has said he will again demand the finance portfolio.
The exit polls also said that several small parties on both the right and the left would fall short of the 3.25% of votes needed to enter the Knesset, which could dramatically affect who will be the next prime minister.
Two of the exit polls also said Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s New Right and the Arab Ra’am-Balad party wouldn’t be entering the next parliament, while the third exit poll predicted they would.
The divergent predictions mean Israelis will have to wait for the actual vote counts overnight and on Wednesday morning to learn whether Netanyahu will muster a majority coalition of right-wing parties or is likely to surrender his position to Gantz.
Over 10,000 polling stations closed at 10 p.m. 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.
The decision regarding who will be the next prime minister may ultimately lie 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.
By law, the final election results must be published within eight days of the vote, but a spokesman for the Central Elections Committee said the counting would be finished on Thursday afternoon. All the counting is done manually, following the closing of the polling stations.
Buoyed by a tight alliance with US President Donald Trump but clouded by a series of looming corruption indictments, Netanyahu has been seeking a fifth term in office that would make him Israel’s longest-serving leader, surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion. He has served consecutively for the past 10 years, and was also prime minister from 1996 to 1999.
Netanyahu faced his stiffest challenge in a decade from Gantz, a craggy former military chief making his first foray into politics, who united his fledgling faction with Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem party to create Blue and White.
In the campaign’s final days, Netanyahu played to his base and veered to the right, vowing to annex Jewish West Bank settlements if reelected and embarking on a media blitz in which he portrayed himself as the underdog and frantically warned that “the right-wing government is in danger.”
Hanging over Netanyahu is a likely indictment in three corruption cases, including one charge of bribery. Netanyahu has been rumored to be planning to condition, or tacitly link, entry to the post-election coalition he hopes to form on support for the so-called “French law,” which would shelter him from prosecution as long as he remains in office. Netanyahu has denied seeking such legislation.
Michael Bachner and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.