Election 2019

On an election night of drama and confusion, we don’t know who next PM will be

What we do know: The electorate wasn’t indifferent after all, the president is determined to avoid a third round of voting, and Netanyahu’s immunity prospects are dwindling

President Reuven Rivlin casts his ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem, during the Knesset Elections, on September 17, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin casts his ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem, during the Knesset Elections, on September 17, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On a night of political drama, with exit polls showing no clear election winner, and actual results set to flow in over the coming hours, we don’t know who Israel’s next prime minister will be. Here are some of the things we do know as of 2:00 a.m.

1. Higher turnout: Predictions were that turnout in the second election in five months would be down on April’s 68.5 percent. In fact, the Central Elections Committee announced, turnout was up — to 69.4% — when the polls formally closed at 10 p.m. (It was not clear if that number could rise a trifle higher, since some polling stations were allowed to stay open a little longer, so that all those waiting to cast their ballots were able to do so.) In all, as of that 10 p.m. figure, 4,440,141 Israelis exercised their voting rights.

2. Similar polls: Israel’s exit polls are always somewhat unreliable, given that the pollsters are grappling with numerous parties, diverse demographic sectors, a 3.25% threshold below which all votes go to waste, and other complexities. In April, one of the three main polls proved to be way off the mark. On Tuesday night, however, all three were broadly similar, and all showed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had no obvious path to a majority coalition.

3. A president in a hurry: President Reuven Rivlin, in a statement issued after the exit polls were released, promised to meet “as soon as possible” with representatives of the elected parties. Formally, he is only set to receive the official results on September 25, but he indicated he would start his consultations before then, once he receives “a clear picture of the results.” He also said he would be “guided by the need to form a government in Israel as quickly as possible” and by “the need to avoid a third general election.” In April, it will be recalled, Netanyahu failed to form a majority government seven weeks after being tasked by Rivlin with doing so, but chose not to let any other MK have a try, and instead pushed the vote to dissolve parliament.

4. A potential kingmaker: Avigdor Liberman, whose refusal to sit in a Netanyahu-led coalition along with the ultra-Orthodox parties deprived the prime minister of the majority he thought he’d won in April, is calling for the same “liberal, nationalist, wide” government that he said he would seek in the run-up to polling day. In a speech two hours after the polls closed, he said he would work for a Likud / Yisrael Beytenu / Blue and White coalition, but that if it would be easier for the two bigger parties, his own Yisrael Beytenu would be fine sitting outside. He suggested that, given what he called the current “emergency” situation, Rivlin should call in Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz as early as Friday afternoon to get talking.

5. Legal trouble: Not only is Netanyahu looking at a deeply problematic political reality, but his legal issues will have gotten a great deal more complicated if the polls prove broadly accurate. On October 2, he and/or his lawyers are due for a hearing with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, which marks his last opportunity to persuade the country’s top prosecutor not to press charges against him in three corruption cases. Netanyahu had hoped after April’s elections to be granted immunity from prosecution by the Knesset, and reportedly then planned to pass legislation that would prevent the Supreme Court from overturning such a Knesset decision. He lost that opportunity when he failed to muster a coalition. Now, he is looking at what seems to be a still more problematic election result, with less support in the Knesset for an immunity bid, a much reduced prospect of far-reaching legislation to rein in the judges, and precious little time before Mandelblit makes a decision.

6. Patience required: In contrast to April, midnight came and went without Blue and White’s Gantz making a victory speech. Netanyahu, too, was out of the limelight in the first few hours after polls closed. The Central Elections Committee was also taking things slower. Having published incorrect tallies in the course of its count five months ago, causing confusion by, at one stage showing the New Right to have made it into the Knesset when in fact that party fell narrowly short, the committee said it would be doing things more deliberately this time. In the past, we often had a good idea of the real results by about 2 or 3 a.m. in the morning after the vote. It is set to take several more hours for the picture to become clear this time.

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