TEL AVIV, Israel—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to be headed for a narrow victory in Israel’s election Tuesday, with exit polls predicting a one-seat parliamentary majority for his alliance of right-wing and religious parties.
Analysts stressed that the exit polls were far from conclusive and that the actual vote count would take a few days to tally—longer than usual due to COVID-19 regulations that dramatically increased the number of polling stations and absentee ballots. But the exit polls seemed to confirm the upward trend for Netanyahu in recent weeks, powered by Israel’s world-leading vaccination campaign and the reopening of the economy just 16 days ago.
If the numbers hold, a challenge to Netanyahu mounted by various centrist and left-wing parties— coupled with defections from Netanyahu’s own Likud party late last year—will have fallen short. Opposition leaders counseled a wait-and-see approach, however, with one senior source telling Foreign Policy: “It’s still early, it’s basically a tie, and we’ll all have to be patient and wait for the real results.”
Pollsters had said that this election round, the fourth in the past two years, would be particularly hard to predict due to coronavirus concerns. Over 3,000 new polling stations were added nationwide, and some 500,000 voters cast absentee ballots, almost doubling the number from last year’s election.
“It will be more difficult than usual for us to have the data that we want” in the exit polls, Camil Fuchs, a leading Israeli pollster, told Foreign Policy on Sunday. “I don’t want to make excuses, but these are extraordinary conditions.”
If the exit polls bear out, it would be a final vindication for Netanyahu’s two-year attempt to win a parliamentary majority that could halt the ongoing corruption trial against him on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. The premier has dragged the country to repeat polls over the last two years, the most recent of which was triggered this past December when Netanyahu dissolved his coalition with Defense Minister Benny Gantz after just seven months.
“This was the best possible outcome for Likud and what [Netanyahu] was dreaming about,” Dahlia Scheindlin, a pollster who has worked on eight Israeli election campaigns, told Foreign Policy. “They proved once again that they have the best campaign operation, ground game, and [Netanyahu] is very aggressive in getting voters out.”
Indeed, throughout the day, Netanyahu flitted across the country, megaphone in hand, imploring Likud supporters to go vote. Yet overall turnout figures were down nationally, several percentage points less than last year’s poll, with reports of especially low participation in Arab Israeli towns and cities.
Netanyahu had promised that if he and his ultra-Orthodox and far-right pro-settler allies win a majority, then he would cobble together his “dream” coalition: a “full right-wing government” that would almost certainly include the Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) faction, a fascist movement spiritually tied to the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. Kahane was barred from politics in the late 1980s for his anti-Arab racism.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, had called on center-left voters to prevent Netanyahu from forming a government of “darkness, racism, and homophobia,” and touted the need to return Israel to “sanity.” According to exit polls, his party will finish in second place behind Likud. Even if Netanyahu’s numbers slip below the one-seat margin, it is hard to see how Lapid would be able to form an alternative government.
The anti-Netanyahu forces range from right-wing challengers like former Education Minister Gideon Saar to left-wing parties like Labor and Meretz, in addition to centrist figures like Lapid and Gantz and former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman—along with the predominantly Arab Israeli Joint List.
The main loser of the election appeared to be the Islamist Raam faction, which split from the Joint List at the beginning of the campaign and charted an independent course that even countenanced working with Netanyahu. The Joint List includes a coalition of parties that represent the interests largely of Israel’s Arab minority—nearly 20 percent of the voting public.
None of the exit polls had Raam passing the electoral threshold for entry into parliament—3.25 percent of total votes cast—which meant that many thousands of votes for the anti-Netanyahu camp had likely gone to waste. Raam leader Mansour Abbas promised supporters after the exit polls that by morning his party would pass the threshold, although pollsters rated the chances as low.
Despite Netanyahu’s possible win, Israel will remain a fiercely divided country split nearly in half.
“These elections mostly revolve[d] around one person: Netanyahu. You have people who support him, and people who oppose him,” Eytan Gilboa, a professor at Bar-Ilan University, told Foreign Policy. “There hasn’t been much ideology. Haven’t seen anything about foreign policy, U.S.-Israel relations, the region, relations between Israel and the Palestinians. The main distinction between left and right has been blurred.”
Israel’s Central Elections Committee immediately began the official vote count, with some 60 percent of votes expected by Wednesday but a final tally likely released closer to weekend. According to Israel’s tortuous electoral process, results will be submitted officially to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin next week, after which he needs to consult with the various parties before tasking one faction head with the first shot at forming a government.
As the leader of the largest party, that person will almost certainly be Netanyahu—again. Netanyahu has been prime minister consecutively since 2009 and also held the job in the 1990s for three years.
“A coalition of 61 [seats] is not stable, and it’s not Netanyahu’s ideal scenario. He would much rather end up with 62 or 63 seats,” Scheindlin, the pollster, said.
But after the deadlock and stalemate and repeat polls of the past year, Netanyahu may not care.
“We need just two more seats for victory!” Netanyahu told supporters throughout the day at malls, on the beach, in live social media clips, and in phone calls to undecided voters—referring to the number that would give his alliance a parliamentary majority.
If the numbers hold, he will have achieved his goal.