With 89.8 percent of votes having been counted by the Central Elections Committee, Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party on Wednesday was projected to secure 32 seats in the Knesset, edging ahead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, which stood at 31 seats.
In the official count, the Gantz-led center-left-Arab bloc has a slight advantage over the Netanyahu-led right-religious bloc with 56 seats versus 55. In the middle are the nine seats of Yisrael Beytenu, whose leader, MK Avigdor Liberman, has vowed to force Likud and Blue and White into a unity government.
The Joint List, an alliance of mostly Arab parties, stands at third with 13 seats, followed by the ultra-Orthodox Shas and Yisrael Beytenu, both with nine seats.
Bringing up the rear are the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (8), the nationalist alliance Yamina (7), center-left Labor-Gesher (6) and the leftist Democratic Camp (5).
The tally was announced at noon and was not final, with votes from Arab population centers expected to be finished shortly, followed by counts of the votes cast by soldiers, diplomats and patients in Israeli hospitals, among others.
The figures indicated that the deadlock from the previous elections on April 9 would continue. Netanyahu’s difficult situation was compounded by the fact that the right-wing bloc bled votes to Liberman.
A unity government encompassing the two major parties continued to look like the most likely way out of the impasse, though Blue and White has insisted that Netanyahu must leave 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, but said he wouldn’t start coalition negotiations with any party unless it accepts his list of demands for secularist policy changes.
The Yisrael Beytenu leader told reporters outside his home that “there is only one option: a broad unity government.”
“The picture is clear and one seat here or there won’t make any difference,” he said.
In his first public comments the day after elections, Gantz on Wednesday morning said he hoped for a “good unity government.”
“We’re waiting for the official results. For a long time we were busy with the campaign,” Gantz said outside his home in Rosh Ha’ayin.
“I wish for the people of Israel a good unity government, that the [political] system will calm down a little bit and we can start moving,” he said.
Likud officials have reached out to Labor chairman Amir Peretz in an effort to convince him to join a coalition along with the ultra-Orthodox parties and Yamina, Haaretz reported.
Peretz quickly declined the offer, saying he is only interested in replacing Netanyahu.
United Torah Judaism chairman Yaakov Litzman said his ultra-Orthodox party will stick with Netanyahu “until the end.”
The deputy health minister, who police have recommended indicting for providing illicit assistance to alleged serial pedophile Malka Leifer, said he will not back down from his decision not to serve in a coalition with Blue and White MK Yair Lapid.
“Lapid damaged and humiliated us. There is no apology for that,” Litzman said.
The next several weeks are expected to heavily feature coalition wrangling, as parties attempt to jockey to form a government.
In the last elections in April, Blue and White managed to tie Likud, but Netanyahu, who has been prime minister for 10 years, 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 Likud instead engineering 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 outpaced voting levels from the elections earlier this year, bucking predictions of a drop in participation in the repeat poll. Turnout as polls closed was at 69.4 percent, up from 68.5% in April.