Benny Gantz’s Blue and White centrist party has opened a two-seat lead over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, according to updated voting results Thursday morning from the Central Election Committee.
With some 96.5 percent of all votes in Tuesday’s elections having been counted, Blue and White had 33 seats to Likud’s 31. Third was the Joint List alliance of Arab-majority parties at 13, followed by the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas with nine and United Torah Judaism with eight.
Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu also had eight seats, after briefly moving up to nine. Rounding out the list were Yamina with seven seats, Labor-Gesher with six and the Democratic Camp with five.
The center-left bloc, including the predominantly Arab Joint List — which has never been a member of the government — has increased its power to 57 seats, with the right-wing and religious bloc at 55. Neither has the 61-seat majority necessary to form a coalition, leaving Yisrael Beytenu in the kingmaker position.
The updated results came after the tallying of some 180,000 so-called double envelope votes cast by diplomats, security forces, handicapped citizens, hospital patients and staff, and prisoners.
Those votes make up some five percent of the overall vote. Their tallying began at 1 a.m. Thursday and ended around 10 a.m., the Central Election Committee said, but feeding all the results into the computerized system would take more time.
The rival parties are no closer to forming a majority coalition, raising the possibility of negotiations for a unity government.
It remains unclear whether Yisrael Beytenu, the “kingmaker” in the race with eight seats, will back Netanyahu or Gantz for prime minister as it pushes for a unity coalition with both major parties. The Joint List has not decided whether to back Gantz or refrain from recommending a candidate from prime minister.
The latest figures suggest the impasse from the previous elections on April 9 could continue.
A unity government encompassing the two major parties continued to look like the most likely way out of the deadlock, though Blue and White has insisted that Netanyahu — who faces indictment on corruption charges, pending a hearing — must step down as Likud leader if such a coalition is to be formed.
Liberman on Wednesday reiterated his insistence on a unity government comprising his party, Blue and White and Likud, and said he wouldn’t start coalition negotiations with any party unless it accepts his list of demands for secularist policy changes.
The next several weeks are expected to heavily feature coalition wrangling, as parties jockey to form a government.
In the last elections in April, Blue and White managed to tie Likud, but Netanyahu, who had more recommendations from potential allies, was given the first chance to form a government. He failed when Liberman refused to join unless a bill formalizing exemptions to mandatory military service for yeshiva students was passed as is, a demand flatly rejected by the premier’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners. The mandate never passed to Gantz, with Netanyahu instead engineering Tuesday’s new elections.
President Reuven Rivlin, who decides whom to task with forming a government, has promised to do what he can to avoid a third round of voting.
Voter turnout on Tuesday was higher than in the elections earlier this year, bucking predictions of a drop in participation. Turnout as polls closed was at 69.4 percent, up from 68.5% in April.