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Live Blog: Israel Heads to the Polls, as Bibi Seeks Fourth Term

Live coverage of the Israeli elections.

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It’s election day in Israel, and Foreign Policy will be liveblogging events throughout the day and into the night. The latest polls show Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fighting for his political survival against a strong challenge from the center-left Zionist Union, which is led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni. But given Israel’s complicated parliamentary system, anything could happen. Will Netanyahu win a fourth term in office or will this election see a change in power in Israel? Stay with us as we find out.

2:30 am: The results are in

As the official results pour in, it’s becoming clear that the Israeli election isn’t a nail-biter at all. With over 99 percent of the vote counted, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has scored a resounding victory, claiming 29 or 30 seats in the Knesset for his Likud Party, compared to 24 seats for the center-left Zionist Union.

In a statement, the Likud Party said that Netanyahu planned to form a coalition government within weeks. He has already begun negotiations with Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home Party, which won eight Knesset seats, and an assortment of smaller religious parties. Kulanu, a centrist party headed by former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, claimed 10 seats and could be another coalition partner.

The Joint List, a coalition of parties representing Israel’s Arab minority, became the third largest party, winning 14 seats. The centrist Yesh Atid won 11 seats; the ultra-orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism won seven and six seats, respectively; Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu won six seats; and the left-wing Meretz Party won four seats.

One of the losers in this election turned out to be Israel’s pollsters. The final pre-election polls, which were published last Friday, showed the Zionist Union with a four or five seat lead over the Likud Party. Even the exit polls last night showed Likud and its center-left rival in a dead heat, with roughly 27 seats each. But when the actual votes were counted, Netanyahu had outperformed those numbers by a significant margin.

Netanyahu’s victory comes after he moved sharply to the right in the campaign’s final days. On the eve of the election, the prime minister promised that a Palestinian state would not be created on his watch, and bragged that he had approved settlement construction for the specific purpose of undermining the contiguity of a Palestinian state. Such statements – along with the prime minister’s staunch opposition to the current negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program – could sow the seeds for tension with President Barack Obama’s administration for the next several years.

-David Kenner

(MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

7:45: Over and out.

A day that began with no clear picture of Israel’s political future ends with both sides declaring victory and no definitive answers as to who will next occupy the prime minister’s office. With that, we are ending our live coverage of the day’s events. My colleague David Kenner, FP‘s Middle East editor, will pick our coverage back up in the morning, when we can expect official results to begin trickling in.

Thanks for tuning in.

7:30 p.m.: Bibi addresses his supporters.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went before his supporters in the early hours of Wednesday Israel time to once more declare victory.  “Dear friends, against all odds we have achieved a great victory for Likud, for the national camp which is headed by Likud, for our people,” he said, according to Haaretz. “I am proud of the Israeli people, who recognized what’s important … security, responsible economy and social welfare, which we are committed to.

Netanyahu also attempted to walk back some of his controversial comments made earlier in the day, when he urged his supporters to go vote because Arab voters were headed to the polls in droves.

 

7:25 p.m.: A revised exit poll. 

Channel 1 has revised its exit poll to hand the far-right party Yachad 4 seats. If Yachad makes it into the Knesset, it would significantly improve Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chances at forming a governing coalition.

7:00 p.m.: Kahlon calls for unity.

Moshe Kahlon, who emerge from Tuesday’s election as the kingmaker, called for unity in the aftermath of what has been bitterly contested campaign. “Now is the time to heal, to unite. It is not the time for rifts. Now is the time to do what is best for all of us,” Kahlon said. “I am not arrogant, and I certainly won’t gloat.”

6:30 p.m.: Herzog also claims victory. 

The Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog addressed his supporters late Tuesday and urged Israelis to unite behind him as he tries to form a government. “We achieved something extraordinary today,” he said, according to the Times of Israel. “Since the elections of 1992, the election of Yitzhak Rabin, may his memory be blessed, we haven’t achieved such a result. This result enables us to return to power, and since we’re going to wait for the true results — every result right now is an exit poll — everything is still open.”

6:10 p.m.: Coalition-building posturing. 

Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ruled out forming a unity government with the Zionist Union. With the race now deadlocked, that may be changing, Steve Linde, the editor in chief of the Jerusalem Post, reports:

According to the New York Times, the Zionist Union isn’t exactly rushing into Netanyahu’s arms. “A unity government is undesirable,” Shelly Yachimovich, a senior Zionist Union member, said during a TV appearance, according to the paper. “There is a yawning abyss between us. We have no common agenda. We have 27 seats. I advise Netanyahu not to be smug.”

5:30 p.m.: Turnout surges late. 

Tuesday’s election saw 71.8 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. That’s an increase of 4 percent on the 2013 election, 67.8 percent went to the polls. Media reports also indicate voter turnout among Arab voters also increased.

5:00 p.m.: Bibi declares victory. 

He may not have the votes in hand to form a governing coalition, but that isn’t stopping Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from declaring victory. “Against all odds, a great victory for Likud, a great victory for the nationalist camp headed by Likud, a great victory for the nation of Israel,” Netanyahu wrote on Twitter.

Meanwhile, Haaretz reports that Netanyahu has contacted Naftali Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home party, to carry out accelerated negotiations to form a right-wing government.

As Netanyahu flirts with Bennett, Moshe Kahlon, the head of the Kulanu party, is staying mum on whom he might support in coalition negotiations. He has informed Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog, who leads the Zionist Union, that he won’t make any moves until the final results are tallied.

The Zionist Union has rejected Netanyahu’s declaration of victory as “spin” and says it is working to form a government headed by Herzog.

4:40 p.m.: Exit poll averages. 

Haaretz crunched the numbers, and the exit poll averages find Zionist Union and Likud tied, the Joint Arab List as Israel’s third-largest party, and Kulanu in a strong position to serve as a kingmaker.

4:30 p.m.: Moshe Kahlon in the catbird seat. 

It takes 61 seats to form a majority in the Knesset, and according to exit polls from Israel’s election published Tuesday, no major party has a clear coalition on hand to form such a parliamentary bloc. If the current results hold, Moshe Kahlon could find himself the kingmaker, as many outlets had predicted prior to the election. Some old-fashioned scribbling from journalist Ediz Tiyansan lays out his position elegantly:

4:20 p.m.: Rivlin calls for unity government. 

With exit polls showing no clear winner in Tuesday’s election, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who will decide which party has the mandate to try and form a government, said a unity government is in order. “I am convinced that only a unity government can prevent the rapid disintegration of Israel’s democracy and new elections in the near future,” Rivlin said, according to Haaretz.

4:00 p.m.: Race too close to call. 

Israeli polls have closed with the race too close to call, according to exit polls. The polls, published by Israeli TV outlets, show the Likud Party and the Zionist Union as the top vote-getters but with little to separate the two. Compared to polling going into the election, Likud is outperforming expectations. Far-right parties are polling mostly below their pre-election averages. That may be an indication that Netanyahu’s frenzied last-minuted campaigning diverted support from the smaller right-wing parties to Likud.

3:30 p.m.: Bibi dismisses unity government.

If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to stay in power, he will have to forge a coalition agreement. The question is with whom. With support for his own party waning and the Joint Arab List surging in the polls, some analysts have speculated that Netanyahu would assemble a unity government with the center-left Zionist Union. With voting almost at an end, Netanyahu has dismissed that possibility.

“There will be no unity government with the Labor [Zionist Union] party, there is no way to bridge the gaps between us,” Netanyahu said, according to the news site Ynet.

2:45 p.m.: Turnout inches above 2013 figures.

As of 8 p.m., 65.7 percent of eligible voters have cast their ballots. At the same time in the 2013 election, 63.7 percent had voted. Polls close at 10 p.m. Israel time.

2:00 p.m.: Drama at the finish line. 

There’s been no shortage of fireworks as this election day draws to a close in Israel. This morning, Israeli election authorities fined Likud about $5,000 for sending out a recording in which Moshe Kahlon urged voters to support Netanyahu. Kahlon, however, has split with the Likud party and may emerge from Tuesday’s election as a kingmaker. The recording was reportedly made while Kahlon was still a member of Likud and was passed off as a contemporary recording.

Elsewhere, Netanyahu’s principal opponent, Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union, urged his supporters to the polls with a vicious attack on the sitting prime minister, according to Haaretz. “Join the upheaval,” he told his supporters, so that you “won’t wake up tomorrow morning with the same lying, divisive, inciting prime minister.”

Netanyahu, meanwhile, is out with a scathing statement about being banned from the airwaves, saying “no one will shut us up.”

1:00 p.m.: Turnout reaches 54.6 percent

As of 6 p.m., 54.6 of eligible voters in Israel had cast their ballots. Turnout continues to slightly lag behind the 2013 election, at the same point of which 55.5 percent had voted.

12:50 p.m. EST: No Bibi for you. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to make a public statement this evening, but most Israelis didn’t hear it. The Central Elections Committee ruled that the statement constituted election propaganda and as such couldn’t be broadcast live, according to Haaretz.

12:15 p.m. EST: Politicians! They’re just like us.

It’s election day and that means Israel’s politicians are posing for photos casting ballots of their own. ​

Here’s Bibi:

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SEBASTIAN SCHEINER/AFP/Getty Images

And Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid:

http://Israeli%20MP%20and%20chairperson%20of%20center-right%20Yesh%20Atid%20party,%20Yair%20Lapid,%20casts%20his%20ballot%20at%20a%20polling%20station%20with%20his%20wife%20Lihi%20(R)%20on%20March%2017,%202015%20in%20Tel%20Aviv.%20Voting%20polls%20opened%20for%20unpredictable%20elections%20to%20determine%20whether%20Israelis%20still%20want%20incumbent%20Prime%20Minister%20Benjamin%20Netanyahu%20as%20leader,%20or%20will%20seek%20change%20after%20six%20years.%20AFP%20PHOTO%20/%20GIL%20COHEN%20MAGEN%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20(Photo%20credit%20should%20read%20GIL%20COHEN%20MAGEN/AFP/Getty%20Images)

GIL COHEN MAGEN/AFP/Getty Images

Isaac Herzog, co-leader of the Zionist Union, brought a big audience:

THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

So did Zionist Union leader Tzipi Livni:

GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images

And Arab Joint List leader Ayman Odeh brought some kids.

AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images

12:00 p.m. ESTWhy does Bibi fear the Arab vote? 

Amid reports of high voter turnout, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged his supporters to cast their votes with a warning: “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls.” That statement has been widely criticized, with Dov Khenin, a member of the Knesset and a candidate on the Joint Arab List, describing Netanyahu’s gambit for right-wing vote as racist as inappropriate.

“A prime minister who campaigns against voting by citizens belonging to an ethnic minority is crossing a red line of incitement and racism,” Khenin said, according to Haaretz. This is especially severe on Election Day, when the message to Israeli citizens is to participate in the elections, vote, and take part in the democratic system. A statement like that, issued by the prime minister, shows that he has completely lost his way and that he is ready to break all the principles of democracy to safeguard his regime.”

This year’s election is unusual in that Israel’s small, disparate Arab parties have unified on the joint platform, the Joint Arab List. That move has important consequences for coalition-building in Israel’s parliamentary system, as Yousef Munayyer writes in the Washington Post:

“At a minimum, a bigger Joint List that stays out of a coalition means a more difficult path to 61 for a non-Netanyahu government simply because fewer seats are available to combine with that are not Netanyahu’s natural allies.”

11:30 a.m. EST: Voter turnout reaches 45.4 percent 

According to Israeli election authorities, 45.4 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballots of 4 p.m. Israel time. So far, turnout is lagging slightly behind the last time Israel went to the polls, in 2013. That year, 46.6 percent of voters had gone to the polls by 4 p.m.

Polls close at 10 p.m. Israel time, at which point exit polling is expected to be released.

11:15 a.m. EST: Netanyahu warns of high Arab turnout. 

Amid reports of high voter turnout, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took to Facebook to warn that Arab voters are streaming to the polls. “The right-wing government is in danger,” Netanyahu said. “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out.”

With his position in the polls slipping, Netanyahu has made a series of gambits to shore up his support on the Israeli right. On Monday, he vowed that if re-elected he would prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. Stirring fears that Arabs are being bussed to the polls by leftists appears to be a fairly naked and cynical attempt to appeal to win support on the right, where Likud voters have been lured away by Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party.

Watch Netanyahu’s appeal to his supporters here:

11:00 a.m. EST: High turnout reported. 

At of 2 p.m. in Israel, officials reported a high turnout rate. According to the news site Ynet, some 36.7 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballots. The morning hours saw record-high turnout, with 13.7 percent of voters going to the polls in the first three hours of voting.

Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images 

 

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

David Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. @davidkenner

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