Netanyahu ahead in Israeli election, but still lacking governing majority
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accompanied by his wife Sara, addresses his supporters after first exit poll results for the Israeli elections at his party's headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Feb. 2, 2020. (AP Photo)
Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud party, claimed victory on March 2's vote over his main challenger, former armed forces chief Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White, after exit polls projected his party had come out on top.
But with nearly three-quarters of the votes counted, Netanyahu appeared three seats short of a majority in Israel's parliament, a gap signalling there may be deadlock yet again.
A win for Netanyahu, 70, after inconclusive ballots in April and September, would be testimony to the political durability of Israel's longest-serving leader, who fought the latest campaign under the shadow of a looming corruption trial.
It would also pave the way for Netanyahu to make good on his pledge to annex, after the election, Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, and the region's Jordan Valley, under a peace plan presented by U.S. President Donald Trump.
Palestinians have rejected the proposal, saying it was killing their dream of establishing a viable state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
With about 72 percent of votes counted, Likud led Blue and White by 35 seats to 32. Together with right-wing and religious parties, Netanyahu could build a 58-seat coalition, short of a majority in the 120-seat parliament.
Unless things shift as the remaining votes are tallied, another round of complicated political negotiations awaits.
In the previous election, in September, Blue and White edged past Likud, taking 33 seats to its rival's 32, but Gantz, like Netanyahu, was unable to put together a ruling coalition.
The mostly Arab Joint List party again emerged as the third-largest party, apparently growing to 17 seats from 13 in the last election. During an acrimonious campaign which focused more on character than on policy, right-wing and religious parties had pledged to join a Likud-led government.
Netanyahu campaigned vigorously on his strongman "security-first" platform, familiar to Israeli voters over decades, and his loyal base of blue-collar voters has stood firmly behind him throughout, seemingly unfazed by his imminent trial.
"What a joyous night," a beaming Netanyahu told a cheering crowd in a speech at Likud's election headquarters in Tel Aviv. "This victory is especially sweet, because it is a victory against all odds ... We turned lemons into lemonade."
Gantz, in an address at his party's election headquarters, stopped short of conceding defeat, saying the election could result in another deadlock.
"I will tell you honestly, I understand and share the feeling of disappointment and pain because it is not the result we wanted," he said.
A Likud spokesman said he expected Netanyahu would manage to gain a governing majority and establish a coalition government by getting lawmakers from the opposing camp to cross sides. "There will be defectors," Jonatan Urich told Channel 12 News.
Netanyahu's re-election bid has been complicated by his indictment on charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud over allegations he granted state favours worth millions of dollars to Israeli media barons in return for favourable press coverage, and that he wrongfully received gifts.
The first trial of a sitting prime minister in Israel is due to begin on March 17. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.
During the campaign, Gantz termed Netanyahu "the defendant", accusing him of seeking to retain power to promote legislation that would bar authorities from putting a serving prime minister on trial.
Netanyahu has portrayed Gantz, 60, as a "coward", saying he would need Arab politicians' support in parliament to form a government and that they would tie his hands.
"While we need to wait for the final results, there is no doubt that Prime Minister Netanyahu has won a significant political mandate from the Israeli people," said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute.
"Israelis voiced their support for the man they perceive to have brought them security and prosperity," he said.
In the final days of the campaign, opinion polls had forecast further deadlock, but turnout was high, at 71 percent, despite concerns about the spread of the new coronavirus.
Voters under home-quarantine, such as those who have recently travelled back to Israel from coronavirus hot spots, voted at special polling stations wearing face masks and gloves.