Israel’s Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to be headed toward re-election early Wednesday, as exit polls and partial results showed him edging ahead of his main competitor in a tight race that was seen as a referendum on the long-serving leader.
Both Netanyahu and former military chief Benny Gantz, leader of the rival Blue and White party, declared victory in speeches to boisterous gatherings of supporters. But as the night went on, there were growing signs that Netanyahu’s Likud was pulling ahead.
Partial results with 95 per cent of votes counted showed Netanyahu’s Likud party tied with Gantz’s centrist Blue and White Party with 35 parliamentary seats each, the Knesset website and Israeli Channel 12 said.
The mixed results provided each side with an excuse to publicly declare itself the winner.
“It is a night of colossal victory,” the 69-year-old Netanyahu told cheering supporters in a late-night speech at Likud headquarters, while cautioning that a “long night and possibly day” lay ahead awaiting official results.
Rival Gantz, 59, earlier also claimed victory, citing preliminary exit polls that showed his party had won more seats than Likud.
“We are the victors,” said Gantz, a former military chief fighting his first election. “We want to thank Benjamin Netanyahu for his service to the nation.”
Gantz’s party urged the Israeli president, who is charged with selecting the prime minister, to “call on the winner to form the next government. There is no other option!”
Political analysts cautioned it was too early to be certain of the outcome, with many hours to go before a final tally is in.
Ofer Zalzberg, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said Likud and Blue and White would have to learn the fate of smaller parties to know whether they had garnered enough support for a coalition.
“Netanyahu is more likely to establish another right-wing government, but we will have to wait and see,” he said.
Small parties will be important
The final results could also depend on the performance of several small parties, including the Arab Balad party and the ultranationalist New Right, which were on the cusp of winning the needed 3.25 per cent of the votes to enter the Knesset. If any of them fails to cross the threshold, the makeup of the next coalition could be dramatically affected.
The election included several other surprises. Exit polls all projected the iconic Labor Party, which ruled the country for its first 30 years, tumbling to single digits in the parliament.
Clouded by a series of looming corruption indictments, Netanyahu was seeking a fourth consecutive and a fifth overall term in office, which would make him Israel’s longest-ever serving leader, surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion.
The election has emerged as a referendum on Netanyahu and his 13 years overall in power, with the existential questions facing Israel rarely being discussed in the campaign. The prime minister has been the dominant force in Israeli politics for the past two decades and its face to the world.
But his various corruption scandals have created some voter fatigue, and in recent days he’s vowed to annex Jewish West Bank settlements if re-elected — a prospect that could doom the already slim hopes of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel, which Netanyahu has previously wavered on.
“It’s about time for a change,” said Barry Rifkin, a Jerusalem resident.
During his speech following the vote, Netanyahu said he had already begun talking to fellow right wing and religious parties about forming a new coalition.
“I want to make it clear, it will be a right-wing government, but I intend to be the prime minister of all Israeli citizens, right or left, Jews and non-Jews alike,” he said.
The message was a sharp contrast from his campaign theme in which he accused Gantz of conspiring with Arab parties to topple him. Arab leaders accused Netanyahu of demonizing the country’s Arab community, which makes up about 20 per cent of the population.
His attacks on the Arab sector fuelled calls for a boycott, and appeared to result in relatively low turnout by Arab voters. Israel’s central elections commission banned parties from bringing cameras into polling stations after Likud party activists were caught with hidden cameras in Arab towns.
The Palestinian issue was largely sidelined in the campaign. While Gantz has expressed an openness to resume contacts with the Palestinians, his positions were vague and did not express support for Palestinian independence.
Palestinian official Saeb Erekat lamented that the Israelis voted to maintain “the status quo.”
“They want their occupation to be endless,” he said.
Abbas calls for peace
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said “our hands remain extended in peace” on Israel’s election day. Speaking in Ramallah on Tuesday, Abbas said the Palestinian leadership hoped the outcome would help Israel “come to the negotiating table” and embark “on the right track to reach peace.”
But Abbas stressed that Palestinians would reject peace brokered by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.
Trump’s contentious policy changes, such as recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, have sidelined Palestinians, who seek Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem as their capital.
On Tuesday, a new public opinion survey showed the overwhelming majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are disillusioned with their leaders and desperate for presidential elections.
The poll, conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre, showed that only 11 per cent of Palestinians trust Abbas — the leader of Fatah — and six per cent trust rival Hamas leader Ismael Haniyeh. Around 48 per cent say they don’t trust any political figure, and 87 per cent are demanding elections.
The survey, with an error margin of plus or minus three percentage points, was based on the responses of 1,200 people.
The Palestinian leadership hasn’t held elections since 2005 due to a bitter split between the West Bank’s governing Fatah movement and Gaza’s Hamas rulers.
Abbas’s 14-year rule has been marked by corruption and deepening Palestinian division.
This story originally appeared on CBC