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Sa’ar slides, Gantz surprises, Ben Gvir celebrates: Exit poll winners and losers

Blue and White, Meretz, Religious Zionism projected to coast into Knesset, defying predictions of falling under threshold; low Arab turnout dents Joint List, could keep Ra’am out

Campaign posters being printed of New Hope party leader Gideon Sa'ar ahead of the Israeli elections, on February 25, 2021. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Campaign posters being printed of New Hope party leader Gideon Sa'ar ahead of the Israeli elections, on February 25, 2021. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Though it remained unclear Tuesday night who would emerge as the ultimate winner of the March 2021 election, if exits polls were to be trusted, one clear loser had emerged: New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar.

Sa’ar, who after breaking away from Likud was at one point projected to become the Knesset’s second-largest party leader with over 20 seats, was now expected to win 5-6 of the parliament’s 120 seats and possibly become leader of the smallest party in the incoming parliament.

Sa’ar broke ranks with Likud in December along with a handful of party members, including Netanyahu confidant Ze’ev Elkin, to form an independent right-wing list. He has called for Netanyahu to be removed from power.

Shortly after its formation, New Hope soared in the polls with as many as 21 Knesset seats predicted in December and much of its support appearing to come at the expense of both Likud and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party. But since then, the three-month campaign has seen New Hope consistently shed support, dropping to 16 seats in mid-January, 13 in mid-February, and just nine in the final pre-election polls published last week.

Yamina and its leader Naftali Bennett were also humbled by the exit poll results on Tuesday, with a projected 7-8 seats after polling at twice that number only two months ago. But Yamina could prove to be the kingmaker in the race, with exit polls indicating its seats will determine whether Netanyahu can form a right-wing government or whether the anti-Netanyahu camp blocks such a coalition from being created. In addition, it might decide whether or not a possible alternate government is established to oust Israel’s longest-serving premier.

Then-Education Minister Naftali Bennett (L) with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid in the Knesset on September 2, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, the second-largest party, was trailing Netanyahu’s Likud by a wide margin in Tuesday’s exit polls, with a projected 16-18 seats. In pre-election surveys, opposition leader Lapid’s party garnered 18 to 20 seats, after a slow but steady rise since late December.

Ra’am may be out; Joint List down

Another loser, though not an entirely unexpected one, would be the Ra’am party and its leader Mansour Abbas. None of the three exit polls on Israel’s three major networks projected Abbas managing to enter the Knesset. But Abbas, unlike Sa’ar, had been in danger of such a result according to all recent surveys.

The predominantly-Arab Joint List was also projected to drop from 15 to eight seats, a decline attributed to Ra’am’s breakaway from the alliance and low turnout rates among Arab Israelis on Tuesday.

An Israeli Bedouin casts his ballot on March 23, 2021 in the Bedouin town of Rahat on the fourth national election in two years. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

Small centrist and left-wing parties defy dour predictions

Two parties that outdid expectations were the center-left’s Blue and White and Meretz. Both had consistently polled at around 4 seats for many weeks, hovering dangerously close to the electoral threshold, but both were projected Tuesday night to win some 7 seats each.

Gantz’s Blue and White party, then running as a united list with Yesh Atid and the Telem party, won 33 seats in the previous March 2020 election and Gantz was widely seen at the time as Netanyahu’s main challenger for prime minister.

But the centrist leader rapidly shed support after breaking his campaign vow not to enter a Netanyahu-led government. He severed ties with Yesh Atid and Telem to enter the Likud leader’s coalition, clinching a power-sharing agreement that saw Netanyahu pledge to hand over the premiership to him in November 2021. The government dissolved, however, before the agreement could be honored, in what many analysts saw as a deliberate move by Netanyahu.

Alternate Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz arrives at the Ministry of Justice in Jerusalem on January 4, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Meanwhile, Merav Michaeli’s Labor, which won 7 seats last year when it ran on a joint slate with the rightist Gesher and left-wing Meretz, is expected to win 7 as a standalone party, exit polls indicated on Tuesday night. Only a few months ago, the party had been expected to be ejected from the Knesset in the election. Michaeli is set to become the only female party leader in the Knesset.

Kahanists poised to be a key player?

After weeks of uncertainty over whether it would cross the threshold, the far-right Religious Zionism party also appeared on course for a much better-than-expected showing of 6-7 seats.

Netanyahu played an instrumental role in bringing together the three far-right factions that make up the Religious Zionism party.

Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich, left, and Itamar Ben Gvir of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party at an election campaign tour at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, on March 19, 2021, four days before the general election. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

After the faction’s chairman, Bezalel Smotrich, split away from the more popular Yamina party in January, Netanyahu worked urgently to convince him to merge with other far-right parties in order to ensure he would cross the threshold.

The premier counts Religious Zionism among the “natural partners” that he says he’ll rely on to form the next government — along with the ultra-Orthodox factions. Thus, Netanyahu has argued that he could not afford any of those parties failing to make it into the Knesset.

This meant pushing Smotrich to join forces, not only with Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party of self-described disciples of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, but also with the unabashedly anti-LGBT Noam party.

Netanyahu’s efforts to ensure Religious Zionism’s entry into the Knesset have been lambasted by opponents who say the premier is willing to cross all red lines in order to remain in power. But the prime minister argues that Religious Zionism is no less legitimate than the hardline parties on the other side of the political spectrum, while adding that he does not plan to offer a ministerial post to Ben Gvir. If the party ends up with 6-7 seats, however, he may have no choice.

According to the exit polls, set to retain their power were the ultra-Orthodox Shas (expected to win 8-9; currently has 9) and United Torah Judaism (exit polls gave it 6-7; currently has 7), and right-wing Yisrael Beytenu (6-8, currently has 7).

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