Outcome still up in air, officials start counting 450,000 absentee ballots

‘Double envelope’ ballots, some 10% of total, could yet determine Netanyahu’s fate; officials expect final results by Friday; tiny percentage of regular votes still outstanding

View of the Knesset in Jerusalem on August 13,2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
View of the Knesset in Jerusalem on August 13,2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Central Elections Committee on Wednesday night began counting some 450,000 absentee ballots, and said it hoped to conclude the tally by Friday morning.

The ballots, cast in special double envelopes, account for some 10 percent of the national vote, and could yet determine whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is able to form a new government, whether his rivals do so, or whether the political gridlock continues and Israel heads for yet another election after four inconclusive rounds.

As of 11 p.m., nearly all regular votes had been tallied, with only a few polling stations’ results still outstanding.

The double-envelope system is used for anyone voting outside a regular polling station assigned to them according to their place of residence. They are all brought to the Knesset to be counted by CEC representatives. The process takes longer than the regular count as officials cross-reference the person’s details on the outer envelope to ensure they have not also voted elsewhere. After this is completed, the anonymous inner envelopes are amassed together and the ballots within can be counted like all other votes.

Absentee ballots are usually cast by members of security forces, prisoners, diplomats and persons with mobility issues who can not reach their assigned polling station. This year, polling stations were also set up for people in quarantine, coronavirus carriers, at quarantine hotels and at Ben Gurion International Airport.

In the previous three elections, the number of people voting by double envelope rose from 240,000 to 280,000 to 330,000, but this year jumped significantly as it now includes isolated COVID-19 patients and those in quarantine.

File: Elections Committee director Orly Adas counts ballots of Israelis under home quarantine, at a tent in the central elections committee warehouse in Shoham, after the March 2020 elections. (Flash90)

Anticipating the rise, the CEC enlisted more vote counters this year, but expect the process to still take 24 hours or more once counting starts. Officials completed the cross-referencing stage throughout the day Wednesday.

With some 89 percent of the vote tallied Netanyahu’s Likud would win 30 seats, Shas 9, United Torah Judaism 7, and the Religious Zionism party 6. That would give the pro-Netanyahu bloc a total of just 52 seats, still short of a majority even if Yamina were to join with its 7 seats.

On the other side of the aisle, the parties that have vowed to oppose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forming the next coalition have 56 seats. Ra’am, with five, has not made a commitment either way.

On Wednesday afternoon the CEC denied an earlier comment by its chairwoman Orly Adas that appeared to indicate the final tally of regular votes had been held up by an official in charge who had gone to take a nap.

Adas told Channel 12 news, when asked why the results haven’t been updated since the morning, that the official in charge had “collapsed” due to the strenuous work and went to rest for a few hours. In a later statement, the CEC said it “didn’t stop uploading the data to the [results] website because ‘the worker went to rest.’” Adas later told Channel 13 that she’d been joking, and that plainly the vote count did not halt because a single staffer needed a break.

The Central Elections Committee said later Wednesday that results from 180 polling stations that arrived late were being retallied and recalculated, due to a technical issue regarding the way they were originally counted.

“This is taking time,” it said in a statement, explaining the delay in new results being posted.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to his supporters after the first exit poll results for the Israeli parliamentary elections, at his Likud party’s headquarters in Jerusalem, March. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, file)

Ra’am could potentially put either side over the 61 mark, crowning the next premier, but right-wing politicians, both in the pro-Netanyahu bloc and the anti-Netanyahu bloc, have ruled out basing a coalition on the party’s support, due to what they say is an anti-Zionist stance. Some have accused Ra’am of supporting terrorists. Netanyahu called Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas an anti-Zionist last week, and said allying with Ra’am in any way was “out of the question.”

Reacting to the updated vote tally, Abbas stressed that he was not “in the pocket” of either parliamentary bloc.

“We are willing to negotiate with both sides, with anyone interested in forming a government and who views themselves as a future prime minister,” Abbas told Radio 103FM.

“If there is an offer, we’ll sit and talk,” he said.

The Likud party appeared split Wednesday morning over the possibility of forming a coalition that relied on the support of Ra’am, a prospect that Netanyahu ruled out during the election campaign.

Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch of Likud told the Kan public broadcaster that  Abbas “will definitely not be part of the government.” He said that if the pro-Netanyahu bloc ends up not getting the necessary 61-seat majority, “we are heading to fifth elections.”

In a separate interview with Channel 12 news, Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi said that “in the current situation, we view Mansour Abbas as a potential possibility [for coalition partner].”

In response, Likud MK Shlomo Karhi tweeted: “Absolutely not!”

And coalition whip and Likud faction chairman Miki Zohar said in a tweet: “It is our duty to do everything, and I mean everything, to prevent fifth elections.”

Netanyahu repeatedly vowed during the campaign that he would not only refuse to sit in a coalition with Ra’am, but would also not rely on the Islamist party’s support from outside of the government.

Likud supporters at the party headquarters in Jerusalem, on elections night, on March 23, 2021.(Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Also on Wednesday morning, New Hope candidate and former Likud minister Ze’ev Elkin reiterated his party’s pledge not to join a government headed by Netanyahu, “no matter what job we are offered.” He also affirmed that no member of Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope would defect to Netanyahu’s bloc.

“If Netanyahu forms a government, we will serve the public from the opposition,” Elkin tweeted.

He also said New Hope wouldn’t be in a coalition propped up by Ra’am, leaving the faction with limited options after it performed poorly in the election. With 88% of the vote tallied, New Hope had six seats.

Aaron Boxerman and Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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