Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political future hung in the balance as Israeli voters delivered another inconclusive election result, with no clear path to a majority for either the four-term prime minister’s Likud, or his rivals in the Blue and White Party, exit polls run by Israeli television channels said.
The muddled outcome in one of the most divisive elections in Israeli history — seen both as a referendum on Mr Netanyahu, and on the role of Judaism in Israeli public life — threw up a limited range of options. These include: a fragile unity government between the parties, brokered by a secular, right-wing party called Yisrael Beiteinu; a third election in the midst of rising tensions with Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas; or a spate of defections between the parties to form a narrow, opportunistic coalition.
Neither would guarantee a record fifth premiership for Mr Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, who has energised the economy and forged ties with world leaders, including Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, while deepening the divides in Israeli society with anti-Arab rhetoric and Biblical claims to the occupied Palestinian territories.
“We are witnessing quite a dramatic outcome — for the first time in a decade, there is a high likelihood that Netanyahu will not serve as a prime minister,” said Yohanan Plesner, the director of Israel Democracy Institute, and a former member of parliament. “This is unprecedented.”
The exit polls — official results will take hours to tally — indicate Mr Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud party winning between 31 and 33 seats, while the Blue and White Party, led by the popular, but politically inexperienced ex-chief of the military, Benny Gantz, were neck to neck with a slightly higher haul predicted.
Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), described the results as a “national emergency,” and repeated his calls for a unity government that would exclude the two parties that represent the ultra-orthodox, a deeply religious Jewish minority, and the extreme right-wing parties that have formed the core of Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing coalitions.
“We have only one option — a national, liberal, broad government,” Mr Lieberman told supporters in Jerusalem, after emerging as the predicted kingmaker with between eight and 11 seats predicted by the exit polls.
He vowed transparency during the tortured coalition talks, expected to last more than a month. “We are playing this game with an open hand of cards — everything is on the table.”
Final results aren’t expected until Wednesday morning, and the exit polls have had a wide margin of error in the past.
Mr Netanyahu and his allies were closer to a majority than the Blue and White alliance, with either 56 or 57 seats, but if the polls are accurate in predicting that one potential coalition partner, the racist, Anti-Arab Jewish Power party did not cross the 3.25 per cent of the national vote threshold, he has run out of traditional allies with which to form a government.
That leaves Mr Lieberman, a one-time ally of Mr Netanyahu’s who broke with the prime minister over concessions to the religious ultraorthodox minority, holding a crucial role as the country enters weeks of tortured coalition talks. He appears to have doubled his seats in the Knesset after running an election seeking the support of secular rightwingers.
He made curbing the political power of the ultraorthodox to keep their men from serving in the military a central theme of his campaign and appears to have drawn secular Likud voters into his fold The two ultraorthodox parties have together won either 16 or 17 seats, the polls said, but might be forced into opposition despite a near-record turnout.
Other centrist and leftwing parties could win about a dozen seats, bringing the Blue and White Party and its potential allies to about 44 or 45 seats, according to the exit polls.
The Arab Joint List, reunited after a dismal showing in April polls, won either 11 or 12 seats, but the Blue and White Party leadership has ruled out sitting in government with them.
Mr Lieberman is expected to exact a dear price for his support, in prior governments with Mr Netanyahu, he has served as defence minister and as foreign minister — with 11 seats, he is expected to ask for more cabinet positions before choosing which way to lean.
But his hand is weakened by the fact that if Likud and Blue and White resolve their rivalries, he could be left out of government completely — the two parties would collectively have some 68 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
It seems likely that he will try to force a split in the Blue and White alliance, which shares its leadership between three retired chiefs of the military, and a centrist, middle-class issues oriented party called Yesh Atid, to broker a so-called unity government as coalition talks continue for months.
“The party responsible for deciding on the next step is Blue and White — only then do we have a way forward,” said Ran Baratz, a former adviser to Netanyahu. “It’s not all up to Lieberman.”
Israel was forced into a second election this year when Mr Netanyahu failed to clinch Mr Lieberman’s support in April polls, which left him and his rightwing coalition allies one seat short of a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
Both leaders had clashed over how best to respond to aggression from Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, and the influence that the ultraorthodox minority has wielded over Mr Netanyahu’s coalitions for at least the past decade.
The prime minister — Israel’s longest serving — then embarked on a divisive campaign, falsely accusing Arab Israelis of widescale electoral fraud and wooing the Otzma Yehudit, or Jewish Power, into his coalition plans. If the exit polls prove wrong, and Otzma Yehudit makes it into parliament, it will propel Mr Netanyahu to either 60 or 61 seats.
In the final days of the campaign, Mr Netanyahu drew on his relationship with US President Donald Trump to offer Israeli settlers a crucial enticement, the annexation of large parts of the West Bank in order to stymie the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state.
And in a frantic last day of electioneering, Mr Netanyahu criss-crossed the country, blaring hoarse warnings from a handheld loudspeaker that Arab voters were heading to the polls in numbers, and breaking local election laws by giving interviews to rightwing radio stations, until told by the election authorities to stop.
It was part of a long-successful campaign to get rightwing voters to vote in large numbers by sparking panic that a centrist or leftwing government could take hold after 10 years of his premiership.
His efforts appear to have at least partially backfired, by increasing turnout for the Arab Joint List, which could emerge as the third-largest party in parliament, or in the case of a unity government, as the largest opposition party.
It is still unclear how voters responded to the possibility of an indictment for corruption that continues to haunt Mr Netanyahu. He will appear in front of the attorney-general in October for a final hearing before an indictment for bribery, fraud and breach of trust is widely expected to be issued.
Mr Netanyahu had planned to fast-track an immunity clause through the Knesset to shield himself and other members of the Israeli parliament from prosecution if he had been able to form a coalition.
With that outcome now unlikely, Mr Netanyahu will be in the middle of coalition talks while awaiting a ruling from the attorney-general on whether or not he intends to proceed to a trial. He has already exacted a vow from Likud lawmakers that they will not abandon him.
“There won’t be an ousting of Netanyahu,” long-term Likud leader Miri Regev told Hahadashot television channel. “We all stand behind Netanyahu.”
The FT is free to read today. You can share this article using the buttons at the top.