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Likud holds lead after 90% of votes counted, but still short of coalition

Right-wing bloc on course to win 59 seats; updates fluctuating significantly, but Netanyahu declares victory, plans coalition talks

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu smiles after first exit poll results for the Israeli elections at his party's headquarters in Tel Aviv,  March 3, 2020. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu smiles after first exit poll results for the Israeli elections at his party's headquarters in Tel Aviv, March 3, 2020. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu appeared poised for a stunning electoral victory Tuesday morning, though questions remained over whether he had enough support to form a coalition, as votes were counted following Monday’s national vote.

With some 90 percent percent of ballots tallied, Likud held 29.35% of the votes, equal to around 36 Knesset seats, which could represent the party’s strongest ever showing as Israelis looked to end a deadlock that has left the country without a fully functioning government for over a year.

Top rival Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party was trailing with 26.34% of the votes, representing some 32 seats, which would be the relatively new faction’s worst showing in three tries.

The non-final tallies gave ultra-Orthodox Shas and UTJ ten and seven seats, respectively, while religious right-wing Yamina was sitting on about six seats, placing the right-wing bloc on 59 seats, two seats short of a 61-seat majority.

In the opposition, the Arab-led Joint List was predicted to garner around 15 seats, while the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance was getting seven. Yisrael Beytenu had enough votes for seven seats.

The numbers are likely to shift further as more votes are counted. There was a dispute over who would tally ballots cast by voters in quarantine at special voting booths set up to deal with the worldwide novel coronavirus outbreak.

Likud supporters react to the results of TV exit polls on election day, March 2, 2020, in Tel Aviv. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Speaking in Tel Aviv early Tuesday morning, Netanyahu claimed a “massive victory.”

“We stood against vast forces. They already eulogized us. Our opponents said the Netanyahu era is over. But together we flipped the script. We turned lemons to lemonade.”

He said he would launch talks with members of his right-wing religious bloc on Tuesday morning to form a new government and begin the process of “healing rifts.”

An Israeli under home quarantine arrives to vote in a special polling station outside the city of Modiin, March 2, 2020 (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

The vote was largely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu, who will go on trial later this month for bribery, fraud and breach of trust but is thought to be seeking support for a legislative mechanism to grant him immunity.

Despite a jubilant victory party and proclamations of victory from supporters, exit polling numbers showed he would likely come up shy of a needed 61-seat majority.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz admitted to supporters early Tuesday that the party’s showing was disappointing, but refused to concede, saying he would wait for the final results.

“The results could be identical in the political sense to what they were a year ago; then we remained strong, united and loyal to our path, and I tell you we will again remain strong, united and loyal to our path because it is the right one,” he said, projecting optimism.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz speaks after exit polls for the Israeli elections at party’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

Gantz was referring to the April 2019 elections, when Likud and Blue and White tied with 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.

Netanyahu, who has served as prime minister for over a decade, also faces a likely legal hurdle should President Reuven Rivlin task him with forming a coalition. An advocacy group, seeking to oust Netanyahu, earlier this year asked the court to rule  on whether an indicted parliament member can be designated prime minister and asked to form a new government.

The Supreme Court in January declined to rule on the request, saying it was premature, but the issue is likely to come up again.

Without 61 seats, Netanyahu will likely seek to woo members of opposition parties to break off and join his coalition.

He could also attempt to bring in the secularist Yisrael Beytenu, which looks set to once again play kingmaker. He’ll be helped by the prospect of continued deadlock and a fourth election, seen as a doomsday scenario, but one that is increasingly realistic.

Party head Avigdor Liberman vowed Monday he would not joint a Likud-led government that includes ultra-Orthodox parties, but he has also refused to join a coalition with the Arab-led Joint List.

“We won’t move a millimeter from what we promised our voters,” he said.

Israelis arrive to cast their ballot at a voting station in Tel Aviv on March 2, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Joint List was widely predicted to grab 14 or 15 seats, a new high for the party.

“[The results] are a major success for the Joint List that executed the biggest election success in decades,” Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi said at a party rally.

But he expressed concerns that Netanyahu could still cobble together a coalition, calling the prospect a “dark future.”

Party leader Ayman Odeh criticized Gantz for ruling out a partnership with his party.

Ahmed Tibi, leader of the Arab Movement for Change (Ta’al) party that is part of the Joint List alliance, speaks to reporters at their electoral headquarters in Israel’s northern city of Shefa-Amr on March 2, 2020, after polls officially closed. (Photo by Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

“The problem was Blue and White’s racist attitude,” Odeh said, accusing Gantz of turning Blue and White into a “pale imitation” of the right wing. Noting that the Joint List was projected to capture an impressive 14 seats, Odeh said: “We did our part. They failed.”

The election marked another setback for the once mighty Labor party, which governed the country for its first three decades. The party’s alliance was projected to get just six or seven seats, making it one of the smallest factions in parliament.

Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett gives a victory speech to supporters in Kfar Maccabiah after exit polls are released on March 2, 2020. (Flash90)

Addressing his supporters, party chairman Amir Peretz accused Gantz of cannibalizing Labor in a hopeless bid to emerge as the largest party.

Naftali Bennett, leader of the nationalist Yamina alliance, hailed Likud’s victory as a win for plans to annex areas of the West Bank.

“With God’s help today, the Israeli sovereignty [over the West Bank] government has been established.”

Top Palestinian official Saeb Erekat echoed Bennett’s statement, albeit from a place of alarm.

“Settlement, annexation and apartheid have won the Israeli elections,” he said after exit polls were released.

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