JERUSALEM (AP) – Exit polls indicate there is no clear winner in Tuesday’s Israeli elections, leaving the fate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu uncertain and signaling an ongoing political stalemate.
Polls on Israel’s top three television stations showed Netanyahu and his religious and nationalist allies, as well as a diverse range of opponents, both below the parliamentary majority. That could set the stage for weeks of paralysis and even an unprecedented fifth consecutive election. Exit surveys are often imprecise and official results may not be known for days.
Exit polls conducted by channels 11, 12 and 13 were nearly identical, showing Netanyahu and his allies with 53-54 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Their opponents were projected to win 59, and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina match was projected to win 7-8.
If the final results are in line with the exit polls, 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 hard-line nationalist ideology, but has signaled that he would be willing to cooperate with his rivals if he had the chance to be prime minister.
The election is seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s divisive government and, once again, opinion polls had predicted an extremely close race.
The three-month campaign was largely devoid of substantive issues and focused largely on Netanyahu’s personality and whether he should stay in office. Unlike past elections in which he faced a clear rival, this time a diverse range of parties are trying to overthrow him, and they have little in common beyond their shared animosity towards him.
“Vote, vote, vote, vote, vote,” Netanyahu said after casting his ballot in Jerusalem, with his wife Sara by his side.
Netanyahu, 71, who even after 12 years in office is still a tireless activist, continued throughout the day. At one point, he marched down a Mediterranean beach imploring people through a megaphone to vote.
“This is the moment of truth for the state of Israel,” said one of its rivals, opposition leader Yair Lapid, while voting in Tel Aviv.
Netanyahu has emphasized Israel’s successful coronavirus vaccination campaign. It moved aggressively to ensure enough vaccines for Israel’s 9.3 million people, and in three months the country has vaccinated about 80% of its adult population. That has allowed the government to open restaurants, shops and the airport just in time for Election Day.
He has also tried to present himself as a global statesman, pointing to the four diplomatic agreements he reached with Arab countries last year. Those deals 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 oppose what they say is his autocratic leadership style, see things very differently.
They say Netanyahu spoiled many aspects of the pandemic, particularly by allowing his ultra-Orthodox allies to ignore lockdown rules and fuel a high infection rate for much of the year. More than 6,000 Israelis have died from COVID-19 and the economy remains in weak shape with double-digit unemployment.
They also point to Netanyahu’s corruption trial, saying that someone accused of serious crimes is unfit to run the country. Netanyahu has been accused of fraud, breach of trust and taking bribes in a series of scandals that he calls a witch hunt by hostile media and legal systems.
Even Netanyahu’s reputation as a statesman has suffered somewhat in recent days. The United Arab Emirates, the most important of the four Arab nations to establish official diplomatic relations with Israel, made clear last week that it did not want to be used as part of Netanyahu’s reelection bid after he was forced to cancel a visit. . to the country. The Biden administration has also remained aloof, in contrast to the support it received in past elections from Trump.
In a reminder of the country’s many security challenges, Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired a rocket at Israel on Tuesday night, setting off airstrike sirens in southern Israel. The Israeli army said the rocket landed in an open space.
Opinion polls predict a close race, with the possibility that both Netanyahu and his opponents will fail to win a parliamentary majority once again. That could plunge the country into an unprecedented fifth consecutive election later this year.
Tuesday’s election was sparked by the disintegration of an emergency government formed last May between Netanyahu and his main rival at the time. The alliance was plagued by infighting 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, you know, four times in two years,” said Jerusalem voter Bruce Rosen. “It’s a bit tiring.”
By 6 pm (1600 GMT), 51.5% of eligible voters had cast their ballots, a drop of nearly 5 percentage points from previous elections a year ago, the Israeli electoral commission announced.
Netanyahu’s opponents have accused him of fomenting stalemate in hopes of achieving a friendlier parliament that grants him immunity from prosecution.
Netanyahu hopes to form a government with his hardline and traditional religious nationalist allies. These include a couple of ultra-Orthodox parties and a small religious party that includes overtly racist and homophobic candidates.
This time, much will depend on the performance of a handful of small parties struggling to win the minimum 3.25% of the vote to enter the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament.
While Netanyahu’s Likud was expected to emerge as the largest individual party, no party has won a 61-seat majority on its own. 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 approaching the electoral threshold. The failure of any of them to enter parliament would have a significant impact on the balance between Netanyahu and his opponents.
Another complicating factor was absentee voting. Up to 15% of the electorate were expected to vote outside their home districts, a higher number than usual due to special accommodations for those with COVID-19 or in quarantine. The government installed special polling stations and even placed ballot boxes next to hospital beds so that people could vote safely.
Those votes are counted separately in Jerusalem, meaning the final results may not be known for days. Given the tight race, it could be difficult to predict the outcome before the final count is complete.
Once the results come in, the spotlight will turn to the country’s president, Reuven Rivlin.
He will hold a series of meetings with party leaders and then elect the one he believes has the best chance of forming a government as his designated prime minister. This task is usually entrusted, although not always, to the head of the largest party. That will trigger weeks of haggling as the prime minister-designate tries to cobble together a government with promises of generous budgets and powerful ministries to potential partners.
Voting in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Rivlin said the stalemate has come at a price.
“Four elections in two years erode the public’s confidence in the democratic process,” he said, even as he urged Israelis to vote again. “There is no other way.”