Israeli elections, Tuesday-Wednesday LIVEBLOG (now closed)

Lapid soars, blocs tied at 60-60, but Netanyahu in driver’s seat

Yesh Atid comes from nowhere to win 19 seats, urges coalition with right and left; Likud-Beytenu slides to 31; PM says he’ll hold coalition talks with Shas on Thursday; Labor at 15, Arab parties 12, Shas 11, Jewish Home 11

Yair Lapid and Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: Channel 2 screenshot)
Yair Lapid and Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: Channel 2 screenshot)

Voting is over in Israel’s Knesset elections, party leaders have addressed their supporters, and the vote count is just about done. Here’s how The Times of Israel covered events from Tuesday evening through to Wednesday morning. It was quite a night.

Click here for Tuesday’s earlier liveblog (also now closed), which tracked developments from Tuesday’s first light to evening.

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Preamble: It’s Tuesday evening and the supposedly disillusioned Israeli electorate — more than 5.6 million eligible voters — has today been belying predictions and voting in relatively high numbers for its new government and 19th Knesset. The sunny weather may have helped; many folks evidently voted early before heading off to the beaches and parks.

Now we’re entering the somewhat frenetic final hours of voting — polling stations are set to close at 10 p.m. — and heading toward the supremely frenetic TV exit polls and the vote-count. All day, the experts have been pondering who’ll be helped by a large voter turnout. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier urged Likud supporters to “drop everything” and go vote — which could mean he’s truly worried, or wants reluctant haven’t-yet-voted supporters to think he’s worried and do the deed… or quite possibly both. Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home may well be feeling encouraged by the turnout, but so too are parties on the center-left, some of whose leaders are claiming there may yet be a chance to defy pre-election surveys and thwart Netanyahu’s reelection.

Then-foreign minister and Kadima leader Tzipi Livni declares victory on the night of February 10, 2009, thinking she had become prime minister. She hadn't. (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi /Flash90)

Four years ago, the TV exit polls, rather than clarifying who’d next govern Israel, rather muddied the picture. Tzipi Livni, the Kadima leader at the time (and today the head of Hatnua), hailed victory, and wound up with the most seats in the Knesset: 28. But Netanyahu, it became clear over the next few hours, had a far better capacity to build a majority coalition, even though his Likud wound up with 27 seats. Leaders and readers are thus urged to employ wariness and a calculator when trying to gauge those first exit-poll numbers.

Voter turnout among IDF soldiers has topped 60% as of 5 p.m. and is projected to exceed 80%, Channel 2 reports. This compares to 57% voter turnout for the men and women in uniform in the 2009 election.

Voter turnout for the civilian population broke 55% as of 6 p.m.

Activists in the Bennett and center-left camps are expressing cautious optimism as voter turnout continues to climb toward a level unseen in the past decade.

A Turkish state TV correspondent tweets that Yesh Atid sources claim exit polls point to their party emerging from the elections as the second-largest after Likud-Beytenu.


Ediz Tiyanşan

Yesh Atid sources claim that Channel 10 exit polls estimate their becoming the second largest party. #Israel #elections

In Likud-Beytenu, the spirit is not nearly as upbeat. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called an emergency meeting with his party members, according to Channel 2.

“Likud rule is in danger,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu writes on his Facebook wall.

The Likud leader repeats his call to his supporters to drop everything and go vote for the Likud-Beytenu list.

“It’s very important for guaranteeing the future of the state of Israel,” he says.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's message on his Facebook page

The Twittersphere is awash with purported leaks from the TV exit polls which, based on initial small samples, ostensibly show why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is sounding worried.

The leaks purport to show the Likud doing less well than even the more pessimistic final polls, falling below the 30-seat mark, and Jewish Home and Yesh Atid competing to be the second biggest party with 16 or so seats each. Labor is down at 14-15. The leaks still show a right-wing/Orthodox bloc managing to win more than 61 seats, but only just.

By 8 p.m., voter turnout in the elections hits 63.7%, up from 55.5% at 6 p.m. The last two elections, in 2009 and 2006, showed 59.7% and 57% voter turnouts by the same time.

The voter turnout remains the highest it’s been since the 1999 elections, when 71.4% voted by 8 p.m. and 78.7% of Israelis voted by the time polls closed.

In the past 20 years, voter turnout has on average increased by 6.5% between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. when polls close.

Latest voter turnout as of 8 p.m.

Hatnua chairwoman Tzipi Livni says that “these elections have become an election for prime minister. A transformation is possible, and the public needs to think hard about who has the ability and experience to manage the country in place of Netanyahu.

“The reality here will change,” she adds, “and we must deal with it, starting tomorrow morning. It’s impossible to do it according to trends… The citizens of Israel need to think about who they want to be prime minister when they get up in the morning.”

Left-wing parties rush to repost Benjamin Netanyahu’s seemingly panicked Facebook post calling on supporters to come out and vote.

Meretz writes on its Facebook wall that “the prime minister is under pressure. We told you that this would demand a little more effort and now’s the time to do it.”

“A vote for Meretz is a guaranteed vote against Netanyahu. Come vote!”

In Shas headquarters, activists are “praying” for a two-digit result, Channel 2 reports. The ultra-Orthodox party won 11 seats in the 2009 elections, and hasn’t had less than 10 representatives in the Knesset since 1996.

Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

A government official is telling confidants, meanwhile, that Yesh Atid is faring exceptionally well, closing in on as many as 20 seats.

The Jewish Home party is predicting a close race with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid for second place. Still, the right-wing party’s chair Naftali Bennett is urging his constituents to head to the polls, warning of “an exceptionally large turnout in traditional leftist strongholds.”

A source close to the prime minister confirms that Benjamin Netanyahu is truly anxious about the initial exit-poll projections, Channel 2 reports, dispelling the suspicion that Netanyahu’s Facebook post was a last-ditch plea to get out and vote.

Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett writes on his Facebook page that according to the information his party has gathered thus far, Netanyahu will be the next prime minister. No surprises there. But “the big question is who will be his No. 2, Naftali Bennett, Shelly [Yachimovich], or [Yair] Lapid,” he writes.

A parodied impersonation of Mina Tzemach, the guru of the soon-to-be-unveiled TV exit poll, on Channel 2′s satirical “Eretz Nehederet” (“Wonderful Country”) has her saying gloomily that Lance Armstrong’s blood test results were better than the imminent election outcome.

Back in the real world, left-wing Meretz sources are happily contemplating a rise in their Knesset representation from the current three seats to six or even more.

Jewish Home party candidate Jeremy Gimpel, as parodied by Eretz Nehederet on election night (photo credit: Channel 2)

The satire show is now poking bitter fun at Jewish Home’s controversial US-born No. 14, Jeremy Gimpel. It has an actor playing him wearing a suicide bomber’s belt, in reference to his much-discussed apparent relishing of the prospect of a new Jewish temple replacing a “blown up” Dome of the Rock.

Some say that despite predictions to the contrary, voter turnout in Arab Israeli communities may ultimately prove to be high. Others are not so sure. You can read Elhanan Miller’s story here.

Leaked exit-poll results are reason for much hope among left-wing parties. Erel Margalit, No. 10 on the Labor party list, calls it a “dramatic” development that demonstrates that there is little separating the two major blocs in Israeli politics.

Meretz’s Mossi Raz, No. 8 on the list, says “there’s a chance that Benjamin Netanyahu will not be prime minister.”

American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg weighs in on the projected Israeli election results swirling around the Twittersphere. In brief, he says to take them with a grain of salt.


Jeffrey Goldberg

The next Israeli coalition, according to Twitter: Likud, Shas, Jewish Home, Libertarian, Christian Democrat, Muslim Brotherhood, Bull Moose.

Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich writes on her Facebook page that the impossible has become possible.

“Look at Netanyahu’s historic [Facebook] status” in which he warns of Likud being “in danger,” she writes. “I believe in that which wasn’t possible a few weeks ago: It’s possible to form a government without Netanyahu. I call on everyone to go out and vote for the Labor Party — we are on our way to victory.”

She says not to bother voting for Am Shalem, Green Leaf, Kadima, or the Greens, because they aren’t breaking the 2% threshold, and calls on voters to cast their ballot for Labor.

Likud sends its supporters an eleventh-hour text message on behalf of Benjamin Netanyahu, which reads the same as the prime minister’s Facebook status earlier in the evening: “The Likud rule is in danger. Drop everything and go vote Likud now. It is vital for the state of Israel’s future.”

Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar — No. 3 on the Likud-Beytenu list — tells Ynet that “it’s clear from the accumulation and inspection of the data that the race is very close indeed.”

“There is also the danger of a left-wing bloc” that would prevent a Netanyahu coalition, he says.

Optimism is still high in Yesh Atid, which seems to believe it will be the second-biggest party. Jewish Home might have something to say about that. Along with predictions of a poor showing by Likud-Beytenu are suggestions that Labor may not be doing too well either. The exit polls are just a few minutes away now.

It’s 10 p.m. and the TV channels have published their exit polls — surveys based on asking voters at dozens of polling stations nationwide to “replicate” their votes for the exit poll immediately after they cast them for real.

A screenshot of the Channel 2 exit poll, Tuesday night

Channel 2′s exit poll runs as follows:

Likud-Beytenu 31; Yesh Atid 19; Labor 17; Shas 12; Jewish Home 12; Meretz 7; Hatnua 7; United Torah Judaism 6; Hadash 4; Ra’am Ta’al 3; Balad 2.

Channel 2 exit poll, as of 10 p.m.

Channel 10 has the following:

Likud-Beytenu 31; Yesh Atid 18; Labor 17; Shas 13; Jewish Home 12; Hatnua 6; United Torah Judaism 6; Meretz 6; Hadash 5; Ra’am Ta’al 4; Balad 2.

Both the main TV polls suggest that the right-wing/Orthodox bloc, Netanyahu’s “natural partners,” will win a majority in the 120-member Knesset, but a slight one. They indicate that Netanyahu will remain as prime minister. But these, we should stress, are the initial polls — not genuine results.

If these numbers prove accurate, Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu partnership has lost a devastating 11 seats compared to the 42 it held in the outgoing Knesset. But Netanyahu would still be best-placed to lead the next coalition.

He could also potentially build a very narrow coalition with Jewish Home and Yesh Atid that would hold a majority without ultra-Orthodox participation.

The real count is only now beginning. The true picture of the 2013 elections will become clearer in the next few hours.

Channel 1′s exit poll runs as follows:

Likud-Beytenu 31; Yesh Atid 19; Labor 17; Jewish Home 12; Shas 11; Hatnua 7; Meretz 7; United Torah Judaism 6; Hadash 3; Ra’am Ta’al 3; Balad 2; Otzma Leyisrael 2.

Channel 1 exit poll

The three polls are strikingly similar. They all show a marked decline for Likud-Beytenu, and a dramatic rise from nowhere for Yesh Atid.

But they also all show a majority — albeit a narrow one — for a right-wing/Orthodox alliance.

Initial analysis shows Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid to be an immediate key player, capable of determining the nature of the next coalition. Netanyahu won’t want a solely right-wing/Orthodox coalition. Lapid would be his preferred coalition partner. But Lapid, so strong in the election, will have demands of his own.

Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar of the Likud says that the preliminary exit-poll results indicate that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will form the next government, and calls on “all Zionist parties” to join Likud-Beytenu in forming a new government that can cope with the political and economic challenges facing the country.

Isaac Herzog of the Labor Party says there are good relations between Labor and Yesh Atid and that the two could potentially cooperate to form a center-left government.

The two parties are projected to have 17 and 19 seats, respectively, according to initial exit polls.

Channel 2's predicted blocs for the 19th Knesset

From here on in, the most important thing to watch will be the blocs. The exit polls suggest that the right-wing/Orthodox bloc is heading for 61-62 seats — a very narrow majority.

Channel 10's predicted blocs in the next Knesset

Netanyahu, whose Likud-Beytenu list won 31 seats according to all the exit polls, thanks the “millions of Israeli citizens who realized their democratic rights today” on his Facebook page.

“According to exit-poll results, it is clear that the citizens of Israel demonstrated that they want me to continue to serve in the role of prime minister of Israel, and that I form the broadest possible government,” he writes.

Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich reacts on Facebook to the exit poll saying “there is no doubt that a political drama is unfolding before our eyes, that the final result we will only know come morning.”

“I will do everything in my power — and I have already begun doing it this evening — in order to create a coalition on a socio-economic basis” to prevent a Netanyahu government, she writes.

Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar of Likud says that, based on the preliminary exit-poll results, Netanyahu will form the next government. Sa’ar calls on “all Zionist parties” to join Likud-Beytenu in forming a new government that can cope with the political and economic challenges facing the country.

Isaac Herzog of the Labor Party says there are good relations between Labor and Yesh Atid and that the two could potentially cooperate to form a center-left government. The two parties are projected to have 17 and 19 seats, respectively, according to the Channel 10 and Channel 1 exit polls.

Yair Lapid, tonight’s big success, has posted on Facebook a simple “Thank you.”

It appears that the big winner of the elections is Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party, and US commentator Jeffrey Goldberg is already speculating about the White House reading up on the news anchor-turned-political superstar.


Jeffrey Goldberg

I wonder if someone in the White House is right now researching the question, “Who is Yair Lapid, and what exactly does he think?”

Another possible resource for Barack Obama’s staff is The Times of Israel’s profile of the party from December.

Yair Lapid on Election Day (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett says his party has returned to center stage in Israeli politics, having won a projected 12 seats according to exit polls.

Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, lauds the exit-poll results for his party, which predict it will receive between 11-13 seats. “Praise be to God, this is a success for Shas,” he says.

Tzipi Livni thanks those who voted for her Hatnua party, saying the six or seven seats she is predicted to win are for them, not for her.

“I returned in order to stay” and to realize change, she says.

Hatnua activists express mixed reactions to the exit-poll results. Shmulik Cohen, Hatnua’s campaign manager, tells Ynet: ”We strove to change the political reality in this country and therefore we are satisfied. That being said, we expected more seats.”

Avi Wortzman, deputy mayor of Beersheba and No. 8 on the list of the right-wing Jewish Home party, tells The Times of Israel’s Mitch Ginsburg: “First of all, 12 [seats] would equal our highest representation ever. Second, if you ask me, I think we’ll get 14 in the end.”

Looking back over the years, at the rise of the religious Zionist movement, from a small fringe part of a largely secular movement, to one of the largest parties in parliament, he says: “Now we are fulfilling our true role. We’re not fringe, we’re not sectarian, we are in a leadership role.”

He’s confident Jewish Home will be in the next government, regardless of Yair Lapid’s comments about not joining a far-right and ultra-Orthodox coalition.

“The next government will be broad and nationalist,” he says.

The final election turnout result is announced as 66.6% of the eligible population, a mere 1.4% more than the 2009 elections, but still lower than the 2003 elections, according to the Central Elections Committee.

During the day, turnout had appeared to be heading much higher. Apparently lots of Israelis voted early and headed out to enjoy a sunny vacation day.

First votes are now being tallied, and the Labor Party is misleadingly in the lead with 23% to Likud-Beytenu’s 16.75% and Yesh Atid’s 15%. We stress: This is only the first 4,000 or so real votes.

Final voter turnout statistics for January 22, 2013

It appears that Netanyahu is already reaching out to the person who’s shaping up to be the runaway success in these elections, in the hope of enlisting him in his presumptive coalition.

“We have the opportunity to do great things for the good of the Israeli people,” Netanyahu tells Lapid. “The elections campaign is behind us, and now we can focus on doing for the sake of all of Israel’s citizens.”

Benjamin Netanyahu and Yair Lapid (photo credit: Miriam Alster, Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Meanwhile, Channel 2 reports that Lapid has already been in touch with the leader of the Labor Party, Shelly Yachimovich, in an effort to convince her to join a Netanyahu-led coalition with him. If pre-election wheeling and dealing are an indication, he would presumably do the same with Tzipi Livni of Hatnua.

Even without Yachimovich, who’s been unequivocal about Labor being opposition-bound, Netanyahu could theoretically assemble a stable ruling coalition with very different policy emphases from the outgoing government.

For one thing, it appears that the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism, longtime staples of Likud-led coalitions, are by no means guaranteed a spot in the next one.

Netanyahu could theoretically assemble an alliance of almost 70 MKs with Lapid, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua. Such a coalition would be able, for instance, with relative ease, to pass a law mandating military service, and promoting an increased employment rate, among the Haredi population.

Perhaps that’s why Netanyahu, despite the reduced strength of his LikudBeytenu list, is calling the results a “great opportunity.”

Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett addresses his followers with a distinctly IDF-themed speech. He lauds Israelis soldiers as “our heroes” who are protecting our borders and who enabled the party to celebrate its rise from three seats to a projected 12.

“Today we established a new home in the state of Israel” composed of secular, religious, and ultra-Orthodox Jews, Druze, and Arabs, new immigrants and veterans, he says. The home his party established will not only protect its citizens with concrete, but with courageous spirit, he says.

It is “a party of all of Israel” he says, which includes those “who want to be proud Zionists and not obsequious.”

He vows to fight to “lower prices and the cost of living” and to “fight for equal opportunity for the children of Israel.”

Bennett says he has already spoken with Yair Lapid and calls him “a good man.”

From Shas, meanwhile: The possibility of Netanyahu forming a government without the ultra-Orthodox party is “unthinkable,” Shas leader Aryeh Deri says. Shas is projected to win 11-13 seats, according to exit polls.

According to the Central Election Committee website, Likud-Beytenu has now overtaken the Labor Party, with 103,688 votes officially tallied nationally.

As the totals stand, and we remind our readers that these are very early figures, Likud-Beytenu leads with 22.4 percent of the vote, followed by Labor with 13.7% and Yesh Atid with 12.5%.

Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid will be at Tel Aviv’s Beit Sokolov within minutes to address supporters. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is en route to the Tel Aviv fairgrounds to make a speech.

A slightly deflated Shelly Yachimovich says she has spoken to the leaders of Yesh Atid, Hatnua and Shas and claims to be in the process of creating a center-left government focused on social affairs and returning Israel to the negotiating table with the Palestinians.

The Labor Party leader, who according to the exit polls leads the third-largest party with 17 seats, refuses to divulge the details of her conversations, but says “There is a good chance, a very good chance that Netanyahu will not be able to form a government tomorrow morning.”

“I respect the PM, but there is a deep ideological gap between us and him,” Yachimovich tells supporters at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds. “As long as Netanyahu is prime minister, nothing will change in this country.”

Labor officials say there is a good chance that the final election results will lean in the center-left bloc’s favor and enable it to form a blocking majority, preventing Netanyahu from forming a coalition.

She says the vote is an expression of “no confidence” by voters in Netanyahu and says she won’t join him in government, and will head a fighting opposition if necessary.

Her speech is interrupted by repeated chants of “Bibi, go home.”

Meanwhile our Michal Shmulovich files this piece from an ecstatic Yesh Atid election night party, where Lapid is about to speak.

Lapid is speaking now… and so is Netanyahu. If there is to be coordination between them, it evidently hasn’t started yet.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid arrive at their respective party conventions at the same time.  Channel 2 is displaying the two leaders on a split screen, but allowing Netanyahu to be heard…. then eventually switches over to the PM.

Yair Lapid and Benjamin Netanyahu simultaneously address their separate party gatherings soon after midnight following Tuesday's elections (photo credit: Channel 2 screenshot)

Yair Lapid is currently addressing supporters in Tel Aviv.

He opens by saying, “A heavy responsibility has fallen on our shoulders today,” and notes that “Israel faces difficult challenges.” He calls for a coalition as wide as possible, with components from left and right.

Lapid mentions the signature issue of his campaign, universal service. The issue of drafting the ultra-Orthodox into the IDF and civil service has become central to Yesh Atid’s agenda. Lapid and his surrogates have said that it would be a nonnegotiable condition for the party joining a coalition led by Netanyahu.

He says, “The citizens of Israel have said ‘no’ today to the politics of fear and hate.”

Celebrations among Yesh Atid party members and supporters at Beit Sokolov in Tel Aviv on Tuesday night, as preliminary results come in (photo credit: Yehoshua Yosef/Flash90)

Lapid also talks of education, saying it is the most important issue for many of his supporters.

He’s speaking precisely as Netanyahu gives his best effort at a victory address, on a disappointing evening. Channel 2 declares that this shows Lapid’s inexperience, implying he should have deferred to Netanyahu.

Benjamin Netanyahu assures his supporters that he and they will lead the next government, adding that now that the elections are over, he plans to form a broad government that will “join hands” to help the country meet the serious challenges it faces.

He says the results offer an opportunity to push forward policies in the interests of all Israelis, and speaks of many potential coalition partners. “We have to build the widest possible government,” he says. “And I have already began that work this evening.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters after initial election results early Wednesday showed the Likud-Beytenu heading for a victory, albeit with a much-reduced number of Knesset seats (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Netanyahu tells the crowd of disappointed supporters at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds that the next government will be based on five central principles:

1. Defensive might in the face of the immense challenges the country faces — first among them the Iranian nuclear threat. 2. Economic fortitude. 3. Responsible statesmanship in Israel’s sincere quest for true peace. 4. More equitable distribution of the national burden. 5. Reducing the costs of living and housing.

He thanks party colleagues and activists, and says the hard work will begin tomorrow. Then Avigdor Liberman takes the stage for an even briefer address. And then they are gone.

The electoral threshold for entry into the 19th Knesset stands at approximately 75,347 votes, or about 2 percent of all votes counted.

According to exit polls, Kadima, the largest party in the outgoing Knesset, and the extreme-right Otzma Leyisrael party failed to cross the threshold by very slim margins.

Channel 2 is adjusting its prediction, as the genuine vote count filters into the mix, and it’s good news for Netanyahu.

The new prediction: Likud-Beytenu 33, Yesh Atid 18, Labor 16, Shas 12, Jewish Home 11, Hatnua 7, United Torah Judaism 7, Meretz 6, and the combined Arab parties 10.

That puts the right-wing/Orthodox bloc at 63, leaving the center-left-Arab bloc at 57.

If these figures prove accurate, says Labor’s Avishay Braverman, then the prospect of any alliance preventing Netanyahu’s reelection has gone.

And still the night has a long way to run.

Eli Yishai says he’s spoken with both Netanyahu and Yachimovich within the past hour.

Congratulations were exchanged, according to the interior minister.

Yishai warns that if Shas is not included in the next government, then that government will have a short lifespan. “If you want stable governance, there’s no government without Shas.”

Yishai adds, referring to the party that’s becoming the story of these elections, Yesh Atid, “If Yair Lapid wants a stable government, and if he wants to be realistic… he must understand that we have to work together.”

Reiterating his support for the prime minister, despite the aforementioned conversation with Yachimovich, who is seeking to build a Netanyahu-less government, Yishai says, “We said it before the elections and we’re not changing our position. We will recommend Benjamin Netanyahu for the prime ministership.”

From left: Eli Yishai, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Aryeh Deri, the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, attend a circumcision on election day morning (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

With almost a million votes now tallied — we’re guessing that’s a little over a quarter — Likud-Beytenu leads with some 24.6 percent of the vote, followed by Yesh Atid, which overtakes the Labor Party, with 13.7%, according to the Central Elections Committee website.

Based on these early figures, Labor is running in third place, as predicted by exit polls, currently with 12.3% of counted votes.

Shas, which is predicted to garner 12 seats in the next Knesset, is now in fourth position, with 9.5%.

Kadima, the largest party in the outgoing Knesset, is 700 votes away from crossing the electoral threshold, according to reporter Amit Segal on his Twitter feed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz deliver a joint press conference at the Knesset on May 8, announcing Kadima's entry into the governing coalition. For many pundits, entering the Netanyahu government was Mofaz's fatal mistake. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

With approximately 50 percent of votes counted, Likud-Beytenu stands at 33 seats, Yesh Atid is back to 19, Labor 16, Shas 12, Jewish Home 11, United Torah Judaism rises to 8, Hatnua holds at 7 and Meretz at 6.

Providing the biggest surprise since initial exit polls were released at 10 p.m., Kadima is now expected to pass the electoral threshold and hold 2 seats in the 19th Knesset, according to Israel Radio.

Netanyahu tells Eli Yishai he’ll open coalition talks with Shas on Thursday. He also tells UTJ’s Yaakov Litzman he wants them in his coalition as well. It would seem, if so, that Netanyahu is looking to build partnerships with the ultra-Orthodox parties first.

Leading parties by city, with just over 50 percent of votes counted:

Jerusalem: United Torah Judaism leading with 27.6%, followed by Likud-Beytenu and Shas.

Tel Aviv: Yesh Atid leads with 19.6% of votes counted, followed closely by Likud-Beytenu and Labor.

Haifa: Likud-Beytenu leads with 26.6%, with Yesh Atid in second position and Labor third.

Beersheba: Likud-Beytenu trounces the competition with 37.9%, followed by Shas and Jewish Home.

As we fortify ourselves with espresso here at The Times of Israel’s HQ, we are accompanied on the night’s vigil by Israel Radio, Army Radio, our insomniacal correspondents at various party parties, and all kinds of Hebrew media sources… but not, it should be noted, Channels 2 or 10.

For weeks, they’ve been building up to voting day. But when the going got late, about an hour ago, they switched to Master Chef reruns (Channel 2) and a nature show (Channel 10). It is a rather lovely nature show, we must say. As we look, a large elephant is being trailed across a muddy expanse by a delightful baby elephant. But it’s not current affairs coverage. Just sayin’.

Meanwhile, finger-pointing by Likud-Beytenu party officials has already begun following the joint list’s poor showing at the polls.

Walla News reports that one senior official claims that the negative campaign the party ran against Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett “was doomed to fail from the get-go.” And that the votes it cost Jewish Home went to Yesh Atid, not Likud-Beytenu.

The official ads that regional campaign directors were happy to take a back seat to American consultant Arthur Finkelstein and that an atmosphere of complacency prevailed throughout the campaign.

With 75 percent of votes counted, Likud-Beytenu is back down to 31 seats as predicted in early exit polls, and Yesh Atid is back to 19.

The Labor Party slides to 15 seats, followed by Shas with 12 and Jewish Home with 11.

Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party and United Torah Judaism are both projected to control seven seats in the upcoming Knesset, based on the latest tallies.

Meretz currently stands at six seats, which would double its representation in the outgoing Knesset.

One of the big stories of the night may end up being the Arab parties, which stand to win 10 seats combined, beating pre-election estimates of seven.

Kadima appears to have made it in as well, with 2 seats if the numbers hold.

It’s gone 3:15 a.m. and the numbers are shifting again, rather interestingly.

With 80% of votes counted, the blocs are now split 60-60. The parties are as follows: Likud-Beytenu 31, Yesh Atid 19, Labor 15, Shas 11, Jewish Home 11, Hatnua 7, United Torah Judaism 7, Meretz 6, Hadash 4, Ra’am Ta’al 4, Balad 3 and Kadima 2.

Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz and his wife arrive at a polling station in Kohav Yair to cast their votes on Tuesday, January 22 (photo credit: Flash90)

Labor’s Yachimovich said a few hours ago that the numbers could yet shift. We shall see. Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima is apparently right on the edge of the 2% Knesset threshold. It has a surplus vote agreement with Am Shalem, which is not going to make it, so those Kadima votes would get distributed proportionately across the spectrum if it ultimately fails to clear 2%. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. The count continues.

With 90 percent of votes counted, some slight shifting in the numbers:

Figures for Likud-Beytenu, Yesh Atid and Labor are holding steady with 31, 19, and 15 projected seats, respectively.

Shas has moved to 12 seats, making it the fourth-largest faction in the Knesset as the numbers stand now. Jewish Home is at 11.

That Shas rise seems to have come at the expense of Tzipi Livni, whose Hatnua party drops to 6 seats.

United Torah Judaism and Meretz are holding steady, with seven and six seats, respectively.

The three Arab parties, Hadash, Ra’am Ta’al and Balad, are projected to win four, four and three seats each. And Kadima is holding on to 2 seats by the skin of its teeth.

That last shift means the right/Orthodox bloc is up to 61 again, and the center-left-Arab bloc is down to 59.

Mitch Ginsburg is back from the Jewish Home’s post-vote gathering, with a report that shows how high expectations were in the right-wing/modern Orthodox party. For now, it seems set to win 11 seats, which is quite an achievement. But activists were plainly expecting more, as some polls had put Jewish Home as high as 18, and most polls predicted 12-14.

Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett electrifies supporters at Kfar Hamaccabiah on January 22 (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Still, Ginsburg stresses, leader Naftali Bennett seemed upbeat and resolute. “He described the party as a home for the religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, and for those who believe in ‘an Israel that believes in its strength’ and knows how to protect its citizens ‘not just with cement’ and further fortifications but also with ‘force and daring.’”

Notes Ginsburg, Bennett “also departed from the usual script of the religious camp. The party, he said, would ‘be tested’ in its ability to ‘safeguard the people of Israel as it has the land of Israel.’”

Meanwhile, Israel Radio analysts, looking into polling data on a geographical basis, are asserting that many Russian immigrant voters appear to have abandoned Yisrael Beytenu after its alliance with Likud, and constitute a hefty proportion of Yesh Atid’s support.

Lots of Monday morning quarterbacking going on now, as Israel Radio pundits look at several parties that took tens of thousands of votes but didn’t clear the Knesset’s 2% threshold.

Otzma Leyisrael, on the far right, is the biggest party failing to clear the threshold. It’s apparently going to wind up with almost 60,000 votes — only about 10,000 short of getting the minimum two Knesset seats.

Next is Am Shalem, ex-Shas MK Haim Amsalem’s breakaway party, with about 40,000 votes.

The votes of all the “failed” parties will get distributed proportionately across the spectrum when all the counting is done, potentially shifting things around just a little more.

Jerry Seinfeld (photo: Courtesy)

The absolutely final vote numbers may not be available until Thursday, when all the soldiers’ votes are tallied. And turnout in the IDF was a high 80%.

Channel 2 is showing “Seinfeld.” In case you were wondering.

We’ve now had 96% of votes counted, and still the numbers change: Shas is down from 12 to 11 and Ra’am-Ta’al is up from 4 to 5, meaning that the right/Orthodox bloc is back down at 60.

The full party lists, for now: Likud-Beytenu 31, Yesh Atid 19, Labor 15, Shas 11, Jewish Home 11, United Torah Judaism 7, Hatnua 6, Meretz 6, Ra’am Ta’al 5, Hadash 4, Balad 3 and Kadima 2.

Kadima is poised so close to the 2% threshold that it could slip below at any moment, again remaking the blocs. Still, fact is that Netanyahu is far better placed than any other party leader to build a coalition.

The Obama administration is waiting for the final results of Israel’s elections to see how the new government approaches renewing the peace process with the Palestinians, says White House spokesman Jay Carney.

“The United States remains committed, as it has been for a long time, to working with the parties to press for the goal of a two-state solution. That has not changed and it will not change,” says Carney.

In an editorial titled “Man of the past,” Haaretz writes that one thing is for certain after Tuesday’s elections to the 19th Knesset: Israel has given a vote of no confidence to Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israelis have said, according to the piece, that the prime minister has failed. “Failed in the political sense, failed in terms of foreign relations and failed in the socioeconomic sphere.”

Netanyahu’s government failed to recognize the significance of the social protest movement in the summer of 2011, writes Haaretz.

Israel’s isolation, brought about by Netanyahu and Liberman, worried voters “who want good relations with a United States led by President Barack Obama, instead of more apartments in the settlements and threats of war on Iran.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman at a joint press conference, announcing the merger of their respective parties, in Jerusalem in October (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The public is also worried by the collapse of the prime minister’s economic policies and the lack of fiscal responsibility which spawned a NIS 40 billion deficit, per the editorial.

Haaretz puts the responsibility on Yair Lapid, Tuesday night’s big winner with a projected 19 Knesset seats, and on his partners in the center-left camp to prevent Israel’s decline, both domestically and internationally, at the hands of Netanyahu, Liberman and their “natural partners” in the extreme-right and religious camps.

The top headlines of Israel’s Hebrew dailies this morning:

Yedioth Ahronoth – Israel wanted change: A blow to Netanyahu, a leap for Lapid

Maariv – A weakened right, a blow to Netanyahu, the big winner: Yair Lapid

Israel Hayom – Lapid’s surprise, Likud’s disappointment

Haaretz – Dramatic achievement for Yair Lapid, disappointment in the Likud

We’ve now had 99% of the 3.6 million votes counted, and nothing has changed in the past few minutes, meaning that the right/Orthodox bloc is still at 60, and the center/left/Arab parties are also at 60.

The full party lists: Likud-Beytenu 31, Yesh Atid 19, Labor 15, Shas 11, Jewish Home 11, United Torah Judaism 7, Hatnua 6, Meretz 6, Ra’am Ta’al 5, Hadash 4, Balad 3 and Kadima 2.

When the soldiers’ votes are factored in, on Thursday afternoon, Ra’am-Ta’al might slip back to 4, and Kadima is poised so close to the 2% threshold that it could slip below at any moment — so the blocs still aren’t final. What a mighty fall for Kadima — from 28 seats last time to being possibly dependent on a few dozen votes for any representation at all.

The fact remains that Netanyahu is far better placed than any other party leader to build a coalition, but his Likud-Beytenu alliance is greatly weakened. And Lapid’s rise from nowhere to 19 is truly spectacular, eclipsing his father’s record of 15 seats with the defunct Shinui.

We’re thinking this might be a good time to wrap up this liveblog. The arithmetical to-and-fro will likely continue for a good while, but a blow-by-blow description of them might not be absolutely necessary. The elections are over. The final adjustments, the spinning, the negotiations, etc., will now begin.

Thanks for spending the night with us here at The Times of Israel. Maybe now go get some sleep?

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