18 September, 2019
TEL AVIV: Netanyahu’s future hangs in the balance as exit polls show Gantz’s White and Blue making gains on higher turnout.
Polls have closed in Israel and ballots are being counted after millions took part in the election widely seen as a referendum on the fate of incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu, who became Israel ‘s longest-serving prime minister in July, is seeking a record fifth tern in office. He is competing with his toughest rival in years, former army chief Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party.
According to the first round of exit polls, Israel faces the same situation as it did in April, with Netanyahu and his right-wing bloc failing to get a 61 seat majority.
Two exit polls put Gantz’s party in a narrow lead. A Channel 12 exit poll said it would win 34 seats, putting Netanyahu’s Likud one seat behind. The poll put Arab Joint List at 11 seats with eight for Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu.
Meanwhile, an exit poll on Channel 13 put Likud party at 31 seats, trailing Gantz’s party by two seats.
Although many observers expected election fatigue to hit Israeli citizens as they vote for the second time in less than six months, early voter turnout was the highest in decades.
Long queues formed during the afternoon on Tuesday outside polling stations in the capital Tel Aviv, home to around 1.5 million of nine million Israeli citizens.
Voting centres closed at 10pm local time (19:00 GMT) at more than 11,000 polling stations across the country, where 31 parties competed for 120 seats in the country’s 22nd Knesset.
Netanyahu actively rallied his supporters throughout the day, using various social platforms, phone messages, and direct engagement with voters on the streets of several major cities.
“We are fighting to the last minute. Every vote is important. Get out and vote for Likud. Bring everyone you can to the ballot box,” Netanyahu told his followers via Twitter in the final hour before voting closed.
Netanyahu is also facing a pretrial hearing in connection with three separate dorrption cases – bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He denies wrongdoing.
In a statement, Israeli police said they detained or arrested 20 people for various illegal offences, including one man in the Negev Region who allegedly tried to disrupt voting at a polling station.
Final results will be announced on September 25.
Netanyahu versus Gantz
Coalition governments are the norm in Israel as no single party has won a majority of seats in the Knesset.
After preliminary results are announced on Wednesday, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin will decide who will be given the mandate to form a new government based on the recommendations of the Knesset members – usually leader of the party that wins the most seats.
If Rivlin thinks this person is unlikely to garner enough support from smaller parties to control at least 61 seats of the Knesset, he may give the task to someone else.
While Netanyahu may win the most seats, he is not expected to secure enough backing to be able to form a right-wing coalition government.
Experts expect extensive political negotiations before final results are announced on September 25 and several months of manoeuvring before the next government is formed.
That could also leave Israel with a unity government for the first time since Netanyahu came to power in 2009.
“If Netanyahu doesn’t clear the 61-seat threshold tonight, Rivlin may still give him the mandate to form a government,” Eli Nissan, an Israeli political analyst, told Al Jazeera.
“But if he fails to form a government within the next few weeks – like what happened after the April vote – the president may give Gantz the opportunity to do that instead. If he fails as well, the president may push for a unity government.”
According to experts, voter turnout among Palestinian citizens of Israel was expected to be higher than the April vote which saw only 49.2 percent of eligible voters among Palestinians cast their ballot.
“There was a higher voter turnout among Palestinian citizens this time, most of whom voted for the Arab Joint List,” said Haifa-based analyst Diana Buttu.
“We also saw a large number of Jewish voters support the Joint List,” she added referring to the alliance of four Palestinian parties which split into two competing groups in April, but regrouped again in advance of the September election.
Oudeh Bisharat, a Nazareth-based political analyst, agreed.
“Palestinian voters went out in bigger numbers this time because the Arab Joint List was united again and because they wanted to challenge Netanyahu’s racism and incitement against them,” Bisharat told Al Jazeera. (Int’l Monitoring Desk)