Via Financial Times

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared on the verge of a record fifth premiership, as exit polls showed his rightwing bloc approaching a 61-seat majority, and close to ending a year-long political deadlock despite a pending corruption trial

Experts warned that an unexpected surge in turnout — the highest since 1999 in spite of it being the third election in less than a year — could make the exit polls unreliable.

Initial results showed Mr Netanyahu appeared to need only one more seat to remain prime minister. Within hours, however, two of the exit polls were revised downwards to two seats short of a majority. In April polls, 60 seats eventually proved insufficient as coalition talks fell apart after months of haggling.

Nevertheless, Mr Netanyahu’s outright lead over his challenger, ex-military chief Benny Gantz, gave Likud party a sniff of victory while the country awaited the final results. 

“We won big,” Miri Regev, a rightwing stalwart and close ally of Mr Netanyahu told Channel 12. “We expect Mr Gantz to pick up the phone in the morning and give Prime Minister Netanyahu a call.”

Mr Netanyahu tweeted a “thank you,” and heart emoji immediately after the first exit polls were published.

A possible victory could also set the scene for a historic first — the trial of a sitting Israeli prime minister for corruption, due to begin on March 17. 

Mr Netanyahu is expected to face at least one legal challenge before he can proceed with the task of forming a coalition: it is unclear whether Israeli law allows an indicted member of the Knesset to take the lead in government formation. The Supreme Court sidestepped that very question earlier this year, but analysts expect fresh appeals to land on the court’s step within days. 

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“There is no doubt that Prime Minister Netanyahu has won a significant political mandate from the Israeli people,” said Yohanan Plesner, the president of the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute. “At the same time, the country is heading towards constitutional uncertainty . . . (soon, Israel) will find itself in the unprecedented situation in which the man in charge of institutions of law and order will begin his fight to clear his name in court.”

In two prior elections, neither Mr Netanyahu’s Likud nor the neophyte Blue and White Alliance, led by Mr Gantz, managed to find enough allies to cross the 61-seat threshold to form a governing coalition. In the interim, lawmaking came to a standstill and budgets were doled out month-by-month, while Mr Netanyahu stayed on as caretaker PM. 

The ensuing year-long campaign paralysed decision-making with mud-slinging so acrimonious that the mild-mannered president, Reuven Rivlin said on Monday morning that he was ashamed “of the awful and grubby” politics that had dragged Israelis to three back-to-back national polls.

In the last weeks, Mr Netanyahu, a consummate survivor of Israel’s pugilistic political scene, ran a campaign that belittled his former army chief of staff as dim-witted, and unwilling to defend Israel from Iranian aggression. 

A journalist close to Mr Netanyahu wrote an unsourced story saying that Iran had hacked Mr Gantz’s phone to gain incriminating — and intimate — videos of the patrician general, leaving him open to blackmail. 

Voters also appeared eager to break the deadlock, defying predictions of fatigue and fears of coronavirus to throng the polls in record numbers. 

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“You don’t change a winning horse,” said 78-year old Esther Levy, after voting for Mr Netanyahu’s Likud in Jerusalem. “We have never been in a better situation with regard to the economy and international relations. I feel that 13 years in power is too much but there is no one else who I feel can replace him.” 

This time around, exit polls showed Mr Netanyahu’s Likud at as many as 37 seats, with his deeply religious ultraorthodox allies garnering about 16 seats. A smaller party, Yamina, that appeals to rightwing settlers in the occupied West Bank won as many as seven seats. 

After having run neck and neck with Likud, the Blue and White party secured as few as 32 seats, while the Joint List of Arab Parties won 14 seats, as Arab Israelis voted in higher than normal numbers after Mr Netanyahu embraced a US-sponsored peace plan that could see many of them stripped of their citizenship. 

“This is the greatest parliamentary achievement since Israel’s first government,” said Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List. “This is the first time we’ve gotten 14 seats, and our voter turnout surged to the highest it’s been.” 

With a lead over Blue and White, Mr Netanyahu is likely to demand the first chance to form a government, allowing him the possibility of wooing defectors to get to 61 seats. 

He can also try to convince Avigdor Lieberman, a one-time ally, to give up his opposition to sitting in a government with Mr Netanyahu’s religious allies in order to prevent a fourth election. Mr Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenyu party, which mostly appeals to Russian-speaking Jews from the Soviet Union and secular security hawks, won as many as eight seats in one poll. 

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If the polls hold true — final projections usually come by the next morning — Mr Netanyahu is close to holding on to the Prime Minister’s office as he defends himself against three overlapping charges of corruption, including bribery, fraud and breach of trust, in a trial that is expected to take years to reach a conclusion. 

He denies the charges, calling them an orchestrated witch-hunt designed to topple his rightwing government, and his attempts to grant himself legal immunity have complicated previous coalition talks.