Exit polls show Israeli election too close to call

Soldiers’ votes, which traditionally shift balance to the right, will be completed on Friday

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu casts his vote in Jerusalem. Photograph: Ariel Schalit/AFP/Getty

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu casts his vote in Jerusalem. Photograph: Ariel Schalit/AFP/Getty

 

Binyamin Netanyahu looked on course to secure a fifth term as Israeli prime minister on Tuesday night, but differences in exit polls from the three main Israeli TV stations after polls closed in the country’s general election meant the result was too close to call.

Whereas Channel 12 showed a dead heat between Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing, religious bloc, and the centre-left and Arab bloc – with both projected to win 60 seats in the 120-seat Knesset – both Channel 11 and Channel 13 pointed to a significant gap in favour of the right bloc, of 8 and 12 seats respectively.

Some of the small right-wing parties, along with one of the Arab parties, failed to cross the minimum threshold to win seats in the Knesset, according to the exit polls, but this could change once the actual votes are tallied, affecting the final balance between the blocs.

Critical to the calculations will be the counting of soldiers’ votes, which will be completed only on Friday. Traditionally, those votes shift the balance marginally to the right.

One trend was clear: over the last few days of the campaign, voters for the smaller parties, on both the right and left, shifted to the two main parties, Likud and the centrist Blue and White.

None of the exit polls show Mr Netanyahu’s ruling Likud emerging as the largest party. In one poll the Likud, and Blue and White, led by former top general Benny Gantz, are neck and neck with 36 seats each, whereas the other polls show a Blue and White advantage of one and four seats over the Likud.

Coalition culture

No party has ever won a majority and Israel has always had coalition governments.

Despite the unclear picture, both main parties were quick to claim victory on Tuesday night.

“The right-wing bloc led by Likud won a clear victory,” Mr Netanyahu said. “I will start assembling a right-wing government with our natural partners this very evening.”

“We won! The Israeli public has had its say!” Blue and White said in a statement. “These elections have a clear winner and a clear loser.”

Polls over recent weeks had shown the far right-wing, libertarian and pro-cannabis Zehut (Identity), led by maverick Moshe Faiglin, to be the surprise package of the campaign, but all the exit polls showed it failing to cross the threshold.

The other big losers were the New Right, led by ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, with two of the exit polls showing that the party will not be in the next Knesset.

However, the tally of the soldiers’ votes could put both Zehut and the New Right over the threshold.

Assuming that Mr Netanyahu, who faces an indictment on corruption charges pending a hearing, can cobble together a working majority in the weeks of painstaking coalition negotiations ahead, he will embark on his fourth consecutive term as Israeli prime minister and his fifth overall.

In July, Mr Netanyahu is set to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, surpassing the record set by the country’s founding father statesman, David Ben-Gurion.