JERUSALEM (AP) – Polls on the exit show that there is no clear winner in the Israeli elections on Tuesday, which leaves the fate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu uncertain and signals an ongoing political deadlock.
The polls of the three main Israeli television networks showed that Netanyahu and his religious and nationalist allies, as well as a host of opponents, were missing the parliamentary majority. That could set the stage for weeks of paralysis and even an unprecedented fifth straight election. Exit surveys are often inaccurate and the official results may not be known for days.
The exit polls conducted by channels 11, 12 and 13 were nearly identical, showing Netanyahu and his allies holding 53-54 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament. His opponents should win 59 and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party should win 7-8.
If the final results match the initial election, both sides will have to court Bennett, a former Netanyahu ally with strained relations with the prime minister, to form a majority of at least 61 seats.
Bennett shares Netanyahu’s tough nationalist ideology but has signaled that he would be open to working with his rivals if he had the chance to become prime minister.
The election is widely viewed as a referendum on Netanyahu’s split rule, and again opinion polls had forecast an extremely close race.
The three-month campaign was largely free of content and focused heavily on Netanyahu’s personality and whether he should stay in office. Unlike previous elections in which he ran against a clear rival, this time around different parties are trying to overthrow him and have little in common about their shared hostility towards him.
“Vote, vote, vote, vote, vote,” said Netanyahu after casting his vote in Jerusalem with his wife Sara at his side.
71-year-old Netanyahu, who remains a tireless activist after 12 years in office, continued throughout the day. Once he was marching along a Mediterranean beach and using a megaphone begging people to vote.
“This is the moment of truth for the State of Israel,” said one of its challengers, opposition leader Yair Lapid, when he was voting in Tel Aviv.
Netanyahu has highlighted Israel’s hugely successful coronavirus vaccination campaign. He acted aggressively to secure enough vaccines for the 9.3 million people of Israel, and in three months the country vaccinated around 80% of its adult population. This has enabled the government to open restaurants, shops and the airport in time for election day.
He has also tried to portray himself as a global statesman, pointing out the four diplomatic agreements he reached with Arab countries last year. These agreements were brokered by his close ally, then President Donald Trump.
Netanyahu’s opponents, including a trio of former aides who share his nationalist ideology but object to their autocratic leadership, see things very differently.
They say Netanyahu botched many aspects of the pandemic, particularly by allowing his ultra-Orthodox allies to ignore lockdown rules and causing a high rate of infection for much of the year. Over 6,000 Israelis have died from COVID-19 and the economy remains in a frail condition with double-digit unemployment.
They also point to Netanyahu’s corruption process, saying that someone charged with serious crimes is incapable of running the country. Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and taking bribes in a series of scandals that he dismissed as witch hunts by a hostile media and legal system.
Even Netanyahu’s reputation as a statesman has suffered somewhat in the past few days. The United Arab Emirates, the most important of the four Arab nations that have established official diplomatic relations with Israel, made it clear last week that it does not want to be used as part of Netanyahu’s re-election offer after he was forced to cancel a visit to the country. The Biden administration has also kept its distance, contrary to the support it has received from Trump in previous elections.
In memory of the country’s many security challenges, Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired a missile at Israel late Tuesday and triggered airstrike sirens in southern Israel. The Israeli military said the missile landed in an open field.
Opinion polls predict a close race, with the possibility that both Netanyahu and his opponents will again fail to achieve a parliamentary majority. That could plunge the country into an unprecedented fifth straight election later this year.
Tuesday’s election was sparked by the collapse of an emergency government formed last May between Netanyahu and his then main rival. The alliance has been plagued by fighting and elections were forced after they failed to agree on a budget in December.
“It would be better if we didn’t have to vote four times in two years,” said Jerusalem voter Bruce Rosen. “It’s a little exhausting.”
By 6:00 p.m. (1600 GMT), 51.5% of eligible voters had cast ballots, a decrease of nearly 5 percentage points from the previous election a year ago, the Israeli electoral commission said.
Netanyahu’s opponents have accused him of stalling in hopes of creating a kinder parliament that would grant him immunity from prosecution.
Netanyahu hopes to form a government with his traditional religious and die-hard nationalist allies. This includes two ultra-Orthodox parties and a small religious party that openly includes racist and homophobic candidates.
This time around, much will depend on the performance of a handful of small parties struggling to get at least 3.25% of the vote to join the Knesset or 120-seat parliament.
While Netanyahu’s Likud was expected to emerge as the largest single party, neither party alone has won a majority of 61 seats. Both he and his rivals must win the support of smaller allied parties to form a majority coalition.
Recent polls have predicted that several parties were hovering near the voting threshold. Failure by either of them to enter parliament would have a major impact on the balance between Netanyahu and his opponents.
Another aggravating factor was the postal vote. Up to 15% of voters were expected to vote outside their home districts, an above-average number due to special accommodations for people with COVID-19 or in quarantine. The government set up special polling stations and even put ballot boxes at the sickbeds so that people could vote safely.
These votes are counted separately in Jerusalem, which means the final results may not be known for days. Given the tight race, it might be difficult to predict the result before the final count is complete.
With the results in hand, attention will turn to the country’s figurehead, Reuven Rivlin.
He will hold a series of meetings with party leaders and then choose the one he believes has the best chance of forming a government as his prime minister-designate. This task is usually, but not always, entrusted to the chief of the largest party. That will spark weeks of horse trading as the prime minister-designate tries to cobble together a government that promises generous budgets and powerful services to its potential partners.
Rivlin voted in Jerusalem on Tuesday, saying the impasse had a price.
“Four elections in two years undermine public confidence in the democratic process,” he said, despite calling on the Israelis to vote again. “There is no other way.”