Netanyahu's re-election plans in limbo as exit polls show tight contest

Polling stations have closed across Israel

By Andrew Carey, CNN
Copyright 2019 CNN

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces plans to apply Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank.

(CNN) - As counting gets underway in Israel's unprecedented repeat general election, exit poll projections show the country's longest-serving Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and former military chief, Benny Gantz, locked in a tight race.

Just after polling stations closed across Israel, the country's three main TV stations flashed the result of their individual exit polls -- showing Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party neck and neck with Gantz's centrist Blue and White Party.

These polls have a reputation for unreliability -- both Netanyahu and Gantz claimed victory on election night five months ago, amid confusion over varying projections showing each ahead. In the end, Netanyahu failed to form a coalition government, and Gantz wasn't given a chance.

But politicians and voters alike still take them seriously, and watch them closely.

The poll for Kan Channel 11, Israel's public broadcast network, projects Likud winning 32 seats and his main challenger, former army boss Benny Gantz's Blue and White Party winning 32 seats.

Israeli Channel 12's projection shows Likud taking 33 seats and Blue and White with 34, while Channel 13 forecasts 31 seats for Netanyahu's party and 33 seats for his main challenger.

Speaking to supporters in Tel Aviv in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Netanyahu said Israel "needs a strong, stable, Zionist government committed to Israel as a national state for the Jewish people."

"There cannot be a government (in Israel) that is supported by anti-Zionist Arab parties that do not believe in Israel as a Jewish democratic state," he said. "In the next few days we will get into negotiations to establish a Zionist government to prevent the formation of a dangerous anti-Zionist government."

Netanyahu added that US President Donald Trump's "plan of the century will be presented soon."

"The negotiations with the Americans will shape the future of Israel for generations to come," he said.

At an event for his own supporters across town, Gantz struck an optimistic tone, saying the people of Israel had voted for unity, and that he intended to lead his Blue and White party in creating a "broad unity government."

Contacts with other parties to build that coalition have already started, he added, saying "I intend to talk to everybody, starting tonight."

Gantz also said that it appeared as though Netanyahu had not succeeded in his mission to put together a coalition of right-wing and religious parties.

"Of course we'll be waiting for the true and final results, but the way it looks right now, we accomplished our mission and we did it our way," he said.

Close race

These elections are being contested by 29 parties. It is expected that either nine or 10 should make it over the 3.25% threshold, and win representation in the 120-seat Parliament.

Several smaller parties are fighting to clear that threshold, and their performance could be make or break for Netanyahu or Gantz's ability to form a coalition.

One of the parties most closely watched in this election is Yisrael Beiteinu, founded and led by former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman. It was his refusal to join Netanyahu's proposed coalition earlier in the year, and the Prime Minister's decision to go to fresh elections rather than let another party leader try to form a government, that brought about this second national poll in five months.

Liberman has used this campaign to try to extend his appeal among Israeli voters.

Traditionally popular among Israel's Russian émigré community, Liberman has sought this time to portray himself as a champion of all secular Israelis, saying he wants to see a national unity government which does not include parties representing the ultra-Orthodox religious communities.

If Netanyahu and Gantz finish with a similar number of seats, then Liberman could be a coalition king-maker.

Exit polls are currently projecting between eight and 10 seats for Yisrael Beiteinu.

One of the fears going into this campaign was election fatigue, so turnout has been watched particularly closely.

Throughout the day, Election Commission data showed turnout exceeded that of April's election, suggesting predictions about a tight race might have spurred people to the ballot box.

It certainly motivated Netanyahu, whose Likud party said it had convened an emergency meeting in the early afternoon "following high turnout in Arab and left-wing areas."

Netanyahu has exploited suggestions of a high turnout among Arab voters in previous elections, telling his supporters in an election in 2015 that he risked defeat because Arab voters were "going to the polls in droves."

As the exit polls suggest, the two largest parties are likely to be Netanyahu's Likud and Gantz's Blue and White.

Netanyahu is seeking his fifth term as Israel's Prime Minister -- he is already the country's longest-ever serving leader, having surpassed David Ben-Gurion's 4,875 days in office in July.

As in the April election, he fought this campaign under the shadow of three corruption probes, but he has repeated his belief that he is the innocent victim of a media-led witch-hunt, a message which seems to resonate well with his supporters.

During the campaign he has spoken about annexing parts of the West Bank -- considered occupied Palestinian territory by most of the international community -- if re-elected, in an attempt to appeal to the right.

He has also tried again to leverage his close relationship with US President Donald Trump, who made what was widely seen as a direct intervention in the campaign over the weekend by floating the possibility of a defense pact between the US and Israel.

Even so, compared to the last campaign in April, when Trump approved US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights -- captured from Syria in a war more than 50 years ago -- Trump's role in this campaign has been muted.

Gantz's campaign has been accused by some of being lackluster, but opinion polls throughout suggested his support held up.

He sought to portray himself as Netanyahu's equal in maintaining Israel's security, as well as being the man who would defend the country's democratic institutions in the face of Netanyahu's attacks.

Hopes are that more than 90% of the vote will be counted by 7 a.m. local time (12 a.m. ET) Wednesday, so the final arrangement of seats should be fairly clear by that point.

Next Sunday, all party leaders who have achieved representation in Parliament are expected to begin consultations with Israel's President over who should get first shot at building a coalition.

The President will then formally ask one of the leaders to start coalition talks -- on all but one occasion it has been the leader of the largest party -- and they will then have a maximum of six weeks to agree the shape of the next government.

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