TEL AVIV, Israel – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to be heading for a narrow victory in Israel’s election on Tuesday. In polls, a single parliamentary majority was forecast for his alliance of right-wing and religious parties.
Analysts stressed that the polls on the exit were far from conclusive and that the actual number of votes would take a few days – longer than usual due to COVID-19 regulations that dramatically increased the number of polling stations and postal votes. However, the polls on the exit appeared to confirm the upward trend for Netanyahu in recent weeks, fueled by Israel’s world-leading vaccination campaign and the reopening of the economy just 16 days ago.
If the numbers are correct, a challenge to Netanyahu posed by various centrist and left parties – along with defections from Netanyahu’s own Likud party late last year – will be neglected. Opposition leaders advised a wait-and-see approach, however, with a senior foreign policy source saying “It’s early days, it’s basically a tie and we must all be patient and wait for the real results.”
Respondents had said this round, the fourth in the past two years, would be particularly difficult to predict due to concerns about the coronavirus. Over 3,000 new polling stations were added nationwide, and around 500,000 voters cast absentee votes, almost doubling the number of elections last year.
“It will be more difficult than usual for us to have the data we want,” Camil Fuchs, a leading Israeli pollster, told foreign policy on Sunday. “I don’t want to make excuses, but these are exceptional conditions.”
If the polls on the exit are confirmed, it would be final confirmation of Netanyahu’s two-year attempt to win a parliamentary majority that could stop the ongoing corruption process against him for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The prime minister has got the country to repeat polls for the past two years. The last was triggered last December when Netanyahu dissolved his coalition with Defense Secretary Benny Gantz after just seven months.
“This was the best possible result for Likud and what [Netanyahu] dreamed of it, ”Dahlia Scheindlin, a pollster who worked on eight Israeli election campaigns, told foreign policy. “They have proven again that they have the best campaign operation, the best ground game, and the best [Netanyahu] is very aggressive when it comes to getting voters out of it. “
In fact, Netanyahu flitted across the country all day, megaphone in hand, begging Likud supporters to go to the vote. Overall, however, voter turnout across the country was a few percentage points lower than in the previous year. Participation in Arab-Israeli cities has reportedly been particularly low.
Netanyahu had promised that if he and his ultra-Orthodox and far-right pro-settler allies won a majority, he would cobble together his “dream” coalition: a “full right-wing government”, which would almost certainly include the Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) faction, a fascist movement spiritually linked to the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. Kahane was banned from politics in the late 1980s for his anti-Arab racism.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, had urged center-left voters to prevent Netanyahu from forming a government with “darkness, racism and homophobia” and touted the need to restore Israel to “sanity” bring. According to polls, his party will come in second behind Likud. Even if Netanyahu’s numbers fall below the one-seat margin, it’s hard to see how Lapid could form an alternate government.
The anti-Netanyahu forces range from right-wing challengers like former Education Minister Gideon Saar to left-wing parties like Labor and Meretz, as well as centrist figures like Lapid and Gantz and former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman – along with the predominantly Arab Israeli Joint List.
The main loser in the elections appeared to be the Islamist Raam faction, which separated from the common list at the beginning of the election campaign and set an independent course that even supported cooperation with Netanyahu. The Joint List contains a coalition of parties that broadly represent the interests of Israel’s Arab minority – nearly 20 percent of the voting public.
In none of the exit elections had Raam crossed the electoral threshold for entry into parliament – 3.25 percent of the votes cast – which meant that likely many thousands of votes for the anti-Netanyahu camp had been lost. After the election, Raam leader Mansour Abbas promised supporters that his party would cross the threshold that morning, although respondents considered the chances to be slim.
Despite Netanyahu’s possible victory, Israel will remain a deeply divided country, almost divided in half.
“These options mainly revolve[d] to one person: Netanyahu. You have people who support him and people who oppose him, ”Eytan Gilboa, a professor at Bar Ilan University, told Foreign Policy. “There wasn’t a lot of ideology. I haven’t seen anything about foreign policy, US-Israel relations, the region, and Israel-Palestinian relations. The main distinction between left and right is blurry. “
The Israeli Central Election Committee immediately began the official counting of votes. Around 60 percent of the vote is expected by Wednesday, but a final balance is expected to be released shortly before the weekend. After Israel’s tortuous electoral process, the results will be officially presented to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin next week. After that, he has to consult with the various parties before commissioning a parliamentary group leader with the first attempt to form a government.
As the leader of the largest party, that person will almost certainly be Netanyahu again. Netanyahu has been Prime Minister successively since 2009 and held this position for three years in the 1990s.
“A coalition of 61 [seats] is not stable, and it is not Netanyahu’s ideal scenario. He would much rather have 62 or 63 seats, ”said Scheindlin, the pollster.
But after the deadlock and stalemate and repeated polls last year, Netanyahu may not care.
“We only need two more seats to win!” Netanyahu told followers throughout the day in malls, on the beach, in live clips on social media, and on phone calls with undecided voters – referring to the number that would give his alliance a parliamentary majority.
If the numbers are correct, he has achieved his goal.