Israeli election too close to call; Netanyahu re-election plans in limbo

Prime Minister hopes to secure record 5th term

By Oren Liebermann and Andrew Carey, CNN
Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, during a meeting with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House on March 5, 2018.

(CNN) - Benjamin Netanyahu's hopes of securing a record fifth term as Israeli Prime Minister are on hold for the moment, after early results showed a tight election race with his main rival.

Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party appear neck and neck with the centrist Blue and White party led by Benny Gantz, with more than 90% of votes counted.

Both sides are projected to win 35 seats each based on actual results, report Israel's Channel 12 and 13.

Netanyahu's Likud party has secured 26.28% of the vote so far, while Gantz's Blue and White has 25.97% -- a difference of less than 13,000 votes, according to the results from the Central Elections Committee.

But Netanyahu may have the advantage when it comes to putting together a coalition. His bloc, made up of the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties, has 65 seats according to the latest results. A center-left bloc led by Gantz looks to have only 55 seats. To form a governing coalition, a candidate will need to put together 61 seats in the Israeli Knesset.

This picture could yet change if some of the smaller right-wing parties decide to support Gantz, a move observers say is unlikely.

With no clear winner having yet to emerge, both Netanyahu and Gantz claimed victory on Tuesday evening.

"The right-wing bloc led by the Likud won a clear victory. I thank the citizens of Israel for the trust. I will start forming a right-wing government with our natural partners as soon as tonight," Netanyahu said.

Gantz, meanwhile, said the election had one clear winner and that he, not Netanyahu, should be called on to form the next government.

"We won! The Israeli public has had their say!" Gantz said in a statement. "These elections have a clear winner and a clear loser. Netanyahu promised 40 seats and lost. The President can see the picture and should call on the winner to form the next government. There is no other option!"

Officially, it's up to Israel's President to decide who is tasked with forming the next government. He announces his decision after consulting with the heads of the political parties that have secured enough votes to enter the Knesset. These consultations take a few days, and the President is likely to announce his decision about a week after the elections.

Netanyahu's veer to the right

A tense night beckons for Netanyahu as he waits to see if his dream of becoming Israel's longest ever serving leader will be fulfilled. He would pass the founder of the state, David Ben Gurion, during the summer.

Most of the final pre-election polls on Friday showed Netanyahu trailing by a few seats to Gantz. Casting himself as the underdog, Netanyahu veered sharply to his right in the final days of the campaign, pledging to annex West Bank settlements if re-elected, and warning his voter base that the end of his strong right-wing government would signal the beginning of a weak left-wing government.

Netanyahu fought the election in the face of looming indictments for bribery and breach of trust offenses. His campaign sought to portray his pending indictments as a witch-hunt led by left-wing elites and fed by the media.

As CNN discovered when it visited a Likud stronghold in Beersheva, that message resonated strongly with many blue-collar Israelis. The local Likud organizer in the town compared Netanyahu to Moses, saying, "The more they go after him, the stronger he becomes."

The election was called in December, ostensibly after the government gave up on efforts to get a new military draft law through Parliament. Netanyahu believed the timing was right -- sending voters to the polls before any indictments were brought against him, and with a message he could sell to the electorate. Speaking to his Likud lawmakers on the day the election was called, he said the outgoing government had "outstanding achievements" on which to campaign.

Gantz enters the fray

At first facing a diverse array of opponents, Netanyahu saw his challenge crystallize after a dramatic announcement in February, which saw three former army chiefs come together with a former TV news anchor-turned-politician to create the Blue and White party. The name was simple but significant. Blue and White are the colors of the Israeli flag. The message was equally simple: Blue and White had been created to reclaim the state of Israel from Prime Minister Netanyahu.

The man who would lead that campaign and present himself as the anti-Netanyahu candidate was Gantz, a former head of the army, who had held that position under Netanyahu, fighting two wars in Gaza during his tenure.

Gantz's entry into the political arena had been widely anticipated, and, indeed, hoped for in many quarters. Blue and White's polling numbers quickly surged, turning it into a two-horse race. The campaign was hard and personal. After it emerged that Iran had allegedly hacked Gantz's phone, Netanyahu questioned whether he could be trusted to keep the country safe if he couldn't look after his phone.

Netanyahu loyalists also suggested Gantz had abandoned a dying soldier after an attack many years ago in the West Bank town of Nablus. Blue and White rejected the slur, and Gantz was also cleared by a military inquiry. For his part, the Prime Minister announced he intended to sue Gantz and his key ally, Moshe Ya'alon, after the latter suggested Netanyahu could be guilty of treason in connection with an investigation into military procurement.

The "Ultimate Deal" lurks in the background

During the race, Netanyahu -- known to supporters and detractors alike as "Bibi" -- focused on burnishing his status as a global player with close ties to both the President of the United States and the President of Russia.

In a visit to Washington during the campaign, Donald Trump signed a proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, in defiance of the overwhelming international consensus. And in the election's closing days, on a visit to Moscow, Netanyahu was able to personally thank Vladimir Putin for Russia's key role in locating the body of an Israeli soldier who had been missing in Lebanon for nearly 37 years.

As the election went into its final days, most polls showed Gantz with a slim lead over his rival. But the same polls suggested that Netanyahu's route to building a successful coalition would be more straightforward, due to the number of other right-wing parties projected to win seats.

Lurking in the background throughout the campaign was the prospect that President Trump is set to unveil his plans soon for the "Ultimate Deal" -- his name for a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. Nevertheless, the conflict did not play a key role in the campaign, and there was little discussion by the main parties of the merits or otherwise of pursuing a two-state solution.

And whatever coalition gets built, there remains the ticking clock that is the Attorney General's intention to indict Netanyahu pending a hearing within the next few months. One more hearing is expected over the summer. Any decision by the Attorney General to press forward and bring charges is certain to change the political landscape once again.

As counting gets underway, a word of caution: exit polls in Israel, as in many other places, are notoriously unreliable. Four years ago, all three main Israeli networks' exit polls were badly off. All of them significantly underestimated Netanyahu's tally of seats, and two of the three actually suggested he would lose to his then-chief rival, Isaac Herzog. In the event, Netanyahu secured 30 seats to Herzog's 24.

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