After two failed tries to form a government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday declared a “gigantic victory” for his Likud party in Monday’s election, even as exit polls signaled he could yet struggle to form a majority coalition after the third election in a year.
Netanyahu vowed to quickly build a “strong national government,” seemingly referring to a coalition of right-wing and religious parties, but also said he would heal the nation’s rifts sown by three successive campaigns.
“Tomorrow, after we’ve got some sleep, we will meet [with right-wing leaders] to form a strong, stable government, a good national government for Israel,” said Netanyahu. “This was a great victory for the right-wing camp, and first and foremost a victory for us Likudnikim.”
Exit polls released late Monday and early Tuesday showed Likud reaching 36 or 37 seats, a gain of four or five over its current total, and trouncing main rival Blue and White, led by former general Benny Gantz.
As results began to trickle in early Tuesday, Likud held a lead of several percentage points over Blue and White, with some 6.5 percent reporting, but the picture was still changing.
The prime minister was met with deafening applause as he addressed a crowd of Likud supporters in Tel Aviv, who chanted his name and slogans of support. Some shouted “Mandelblit, go home,” in a reference to the attorney general who has indicted him on corruption charges, while others rejected the prospects of a unity government with Blue and White.
“I want to say, I intend to be the prime minister of every citizen of Israel, every right-wing voter, left-wing voter, Jews and non-Jews, every sector and every gender,” said Netanyahu.
“We must avoid any more elections. It’s time to heal the rifts. It’s time for reconciliation.”
The election was the third in just under a year, after both he and Gantz failed to muster enough support for a governing coalition in the previous two tries.
According to amended exit polls overnight Monday-Tuesday, the right-wing bloc led by Netanyahu was poised to pick up 59 seats — two short of a parliamentary majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
Speaking at another Tel Aviv rally, Gantz admitted disappointment in the results but urged party faithful to wait until final results. He cited April’s election, which also initially showed an easy victory for Netanyahu, but turned out to leave him one seat shy of a majority.
Netanyahu, who is facing criminal proceedings in three cases set to start later this month, hailed the results as coming “against all odds.”
“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.”
Netanyahu pledged to forge peace agreements with “major” Arab states, annex areas of the West Bank, neutralize Iranian threats, and clinch a mutual defense treaty with the United States during his next term as premier.
He was met with loud cheers when he mentioned his promise to annex large parts of the West Bank, which he has promised to do under the aegis of the US administration’s peace plan.
On Israel’s clandestine ties with the Arab world, Netanyahu said the diplomatic contacts that were publicized, such as with Oman, Sudan, and Chad, were merely the “tip of the iceberg.”
Peace deals with Muslim and Arab countries are “only a matter of time — and not a lot of time. And only we can do it,” he said.
Likud voters ecstatic over results, fearful of Supreme Court
The jubilant celebrations among Likud supporters broke out long before Netanyahu’s early morning speech, first as rumors of a major win began to circulate and later as exit polls were released.
To some supporters, the projected results were the realization of a far-off dream.
“I got up this morning and prayed to God. I told you him, you have to help Benjamin Netanyahu,” said Chaya Shimoni, a woman in her 70s from Bat Yam, as she wrapped herself in an Israeli flag at the Likud’s election party in Tel Aviv’s Fairgrounds. “You have to make sure they’re not taking this away from him. We’re done with people taking things away from us.”
The first rumors of a major gain for the right-wing party were floating around the event hall long before the polls closed and Israel’s three major television networks aired their projections.
People could be heard saying that Likud was set to do surprisingly well, while the rival Blue and White list was poised to suffer a major decline, as early as 7 p.m.
Likud had managed 35 seats in April but slipped by three seats in September. Since then, its leader had been indicted in three criminal cases.
Avi Hyman, who heads the Likud’s Anglo campaign, expressed confidence that his party was about celebrate a veritable landslide victory, crediting the party’s get-out-the-vote drive.
“The atmosphere today has been electrifying. The prime minister’s message to the 300,000 Likudniks that didn’t vote in the last election has been heard, and it would appear that we’re heading to all-out victory,” he told The Times of Israel, holding “Keep Israel Great!” And “Anglos for Netanyahu” posters.
“Israel never had a better leader than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel never had a better friend in the White House than President Trump. We’re bringing them together,” Hyman added.
Former Likud MK Uzi Dayan, number 36 on Likud list and now on the cusp of returning to parliament, was upbeat, but advised waiting for the final results, “as someone who has rich experience in combat and in political life.”
His spokesperson was less hesitant, celebrating the expected turnaround like a soccer fan whose country has just won the World Cup. “There’s a God in Heaven,” he shouted, running around the still-half empty event hall with an Israeli flag in his hand, even before the exit polls had been released.
One Likud party activists waved a huge Netanyahu flag that proclaimed, in English, “King of Israel.”
Justice Minister Amir Ohana stopped by for a celebratory appearance, hugging party activists and providing soundbites to reporters.
A man called Netanyahu “his father” and “his life” and said he would do anything for him. A smiling woman in her 50s smoked a joint.
“I am happy to the heavens,” exclaimed Ron Nava, a young man from Tel Aviv, waving two large Likud flags.
The results were not final yet, he allowed, adding, however, that he expected to wake up with the right-bloc having grown to 62 or even 63 seats. “Then we’ll establish a strong right-wing government that will honor the Land of Israel. That’s the most important thing,” he said, adding that he was convinced that Netanyahu would fulfill his promise to apply lsraeli sovereignty over large parts of the West Bank.
Even if he does clinch 61 seats, Netanyahu still faces a likely court challenge should President Reuven Rivlin task him with forming a government, given the criminal charges against him.
Nava said he was worried that the court would disqualify him, but vowed that if they did, the party would revolt.
“We’d have to overturn the country,” he responded coolly. “We’ll have to take to the streets and turn everything on its head. We voted for Netanyahu. We didn’t vote for the Supreme Court.”
Netanyahu himself has hinted he could advance judicial reforms if re-elected that could shift the makeup of the court and strip it of the ability to overturn Knesset moves and legislation it deems unconstitutional. The court is seen as one of the country’s last liberal bastions and critics have warned such moves would irresponsibly damage Israel’s democratic character.
Shimoni, the Likud supporter from Bat Yam, also said the charges against Netanyahu did not bother her as much as the court’s perceived slant.
“My mother taught me that a man is innocent until he is sentenced and sent to prison,” she said. “If the Supreme Court can do whatever it wants, we might as well close everything, the Knesset, the government, everything. That’s not democracy anymore.”
“We’ve had enough of this leftists mafia,” she added.