Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached out to his political allies to enlist their support shortly after exit polls from Tuesday’s elections showed his Likud party and its right-wing partners coming up short of winning enough seats to form a government.
The premier spoke by phone with Shas party head Aryeh Deri, United Torah Judaism leaders Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni, and New Right party member Naftali Bennett, who ran in the elections with the Yamina alliance.
They all agreed to cooperate moving forward and Gafni reiterated UTJ’s pledge to recommend Netanyahu get the first crack at forming a government, according to Hebrw media reports.
Exit polls published by Israel’s three main television stations had Likud at 54-57 seats together with Shas, UTJ and Yamina, at least four short of the 61 seats needed for a majority in the Knesset.
Despite receiving more seats than Likud in exit polls, the centrist Blue and White alliance also had no path to a government without Likud. As a result, Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman, who vowed to force a unity government if neither had a majority without him, appeared to emerge as coalition kingmaker.
Reacting to the exit polls, Likud officials said they had no intention of pushing Netanyahu aside, as rivals have insisted they do, and would explore other options for forming a coalition. Additionally, they cautioned that the exit polls were preliminary and called on the public to wait for the final results, noting that exit polls have been off in the past.
Likud MKs and ministers on Tuesday evening reacted to exit polls showing it behind or on par with the centrist Blue and White party by insisting that conclusions should not be drawn until the final results are in.
“We saw this in 2009, 2015 and earlier this year. The exit polls always give us less than we actually get,” Eli Hazan, Likud’s head of foreign relations, said immediately after the exit polls were released.
“There is no point starting to work out a coalition based on these numbers as they will change,” he insisted.
Likud spokesperson Rachel Broyde similarly said that “these are just exit polls, let’s see if they hold,” but admits that if they do, “it looks like we can’t form a coalition.”
“Even according to these exit polls, which could change, a left-wing coalition includes the Arab parties,” Broyde told The Times of Israel.
“That’s their government?” she said, “Let’s wait and see.”
Blue and White had said it would be willing to form a unity government with Likud, but not if Netanyahu remained as its head.
“We intend to wait for the final election results but I want to already clarify that already at this stage… Benjamin Netanyahu was and remains the only Likud candidate for prime minister,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz, Likud’s No. 3, said in a statement.
The comments was echoed by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein.
“Likud is a united party and will continue to be so. The Likud is the only democratic party in the political system, headed by an elected leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” he told reporters at the party’s election results event, referring to the party’s leadership primary, last held in 2014.
Likud MK and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein said that the party will stick by Netanyahu regardless of the election results.
“Likud is a united party and will continue to be so. Likud is the only democratic party in the political system, headed by an elected leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” the party’s No. 2 told reporters at Likud’s election results event.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who returned to Likud earlier this year after leaving his Kulanu party, similarly said Netanyahu was Likud’s sole candidate for premier.
Justice Minister Amir Ohana, a staunch Netanyahu loyalist, said there was “no reasonable scenario” under which Likud would ditch its longtime leader and ruled out the possibility of a third round of elections. Tuesday’s vote was called when the prime minister failed to form a coalition after elections in April and instead pushed through a snap poll rather than have another lawmaker get a chance to put together a government.
“It is possible to form a unity government without Liberman and this is what I’ll recommend to the prime minister,” Ohana told Channel 12.
He also suggested reaching out to the Labor-Gesher parties as coalition partners. Labor leader Amir Peretz has repeatedly ruled out sitting in a government with Netanyahu. He reiterated that message after Tuesday’s exit polls were published.
Culture Minister Miri Regev, the highest-placed women on Likud’s election slate, threw her support fully behind Netanyahu and said the ruling party would look to bring a left-leaning party into a prospective coalition, despite having campaigned on forming a right-wing government.
“We could see a party from the left-wing bloc joining Netanyahu,” she told the Walla news site.
Speaking to journalists at the party’s election party, Likud MK Yoav Kisch said either Netanyahu will remain prime minister or a third round of elections will be called.
“I can’t see another option,” he said.
Kisch added, however, that “we must wait for the final results, which I hope will be better for Likud.”
If Likud and its partners still lack a majority after all the ballots are counted, Israel’s months-long political gridlock could continue.
Likud MK Sharren Haskel told The Times of Israel she’s waiting for the final election results before drawing any conclusions.
“These are exit polls, not the real results. We are obviously disappointed with these if they are the results, but last time we saw the same and when the real results came in we saw Likud gain an extra four seats,” said Haskel.
“Everything is on the table. Our first call is to the religious parties, the Yamina party. Hopefully we will get good news. If not we may turn to Liberman, maybe try to get some people from Blue and White,” she said.
“We hope we will not end up with third elections, but it might be on the table as well,” she added.
Netanyahu has previously thrown cold water on Liberman’s proposed national unity government of Yisrael Beytenu, Blue and White and Likud, while Blue and White has said it would join a coalition with Likud, but only if it deposes Netanyahu.
The several Likud MKs who were in the nearly empty hall where the party is holding its results event fled immediately after the exit polls were released, refusing to answer questions on their way out.