Netanyahu Surges in Israeli Election

Exit polls give the prime minister a solid chance at forming the next government, despite corruption charges.

Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara Netanyahu, greet supporters following elections in Tel Aviv on April 10, 2019.
Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara Netanyahu, greet supporters following elections in Tel Aviv on April 10, 2019. Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel—Benjamin Netanyahu might have just done it again.

The Israeli leader who has ruled the country longer than any of his predecessors appears to have won a record fifth election, according to exit polls, despite criminal charges he faces in court later this month.

The projected results defied surveys that suggested Israel was heading for more political deadlock after two elections in the past year that failed to produce a clear winner. If the numbers hold and Netanyahu manages to form a government, it could pave the way for Israel’s annexation of parts of the West Bank, a dramatic and potentially destabilizing turn for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Netanyahu’s Likud party finished the race as the largest faction in parliament, outpacing the centrist Blue and White party, headed by former military chief Benny Gantz, by a margin of three to five seats. Gantz had led in the polls up until the final week of the campaign.

“If these are the results, it’s a failure,” said Ofer Shelah, a member of parliament from Blue and White.

To be sure, television exit polls in Israel have sometimes been known to deliver an incomplete rendering of the results. The actual returns will begin to come in overnight Israel time.

But all three network polls said Netanyahu’s parliamentary alliance would number between 59 and 60 seats in the 120-member parliament—just one or two seats shy of the number the prime minister would need to secure a parliamentary majority.

“If Netanyahu ends up with 60 seats, it’s not this Sisyphean struggle to get one more seat,” Shelly Yachimovich, a former member of the Labor Party, said on Channel 11 news after the exit polls were published. She said he would not have much trouble getting one defector to join his right-wing camp.

“I believe Netanyahu will form the next government,” Yachimovich said.

On the other hand, if the exit polls have overstated Netanyahu’s strength, Israel would likely continue to be led by a caretaker government and possibly face a record fourth election in the coming months.

It could take several days before the final results are known, a period of excruciating uncertainty for many in the country.

“Israel [is] facing the tensest vote-counting period in its history as even a handful of … votes can make the difference between” a government run by Netanyahu and further paralysis, the Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer of the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper wrote on Twitter.

Netanyahu failed to form majority coalitions following two rounds of elections in 2019, one in April and a second in September. In both instances, Israel’s parliament responded by dissolving itself and scheduling a new election.

The limbo is unprecedented in Israel’s 71-year history: The country has been operating with a caretaker government since the end of 2018.

The apparent achievement in the election is especially remarkable given that Netanyahu ran the latest contest under a cloud of multiple corruption indictments—his trial is scheduled to begin on March 17—and after the number of seats controlled by his bloc shrunk in September to just 55.

But Netanyahu benefited from divisions on the center and left sides of the political map. The third-place Joint List, an alliance of predominantly Arab parties, had been rejected by Gantz during the campaign as a potential coalition partner.

Joint List parliament member Ahmad Tibi criticized Gantz for ruling out any partnership with his faction and said Blue and White paid a price for the veto.

“This is an unprecedented achievement of historic proportions for the Joint List. We did our part. Others failed, including Blue and White,” he said.

Yisrael Beiteinu, a secularist right-wing party that demonized both Arab politicians and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties in Netanyahu’s bloc during its campaign, was projected to control six to eight seats in the new parliament. But the results likely meant the party would no longer hold the balance of power between the left- and right-wing blocs in parliament.

A first-time alliance between the Labor Party and Meretz, two left-wing parties that once controlled more than one-third of the Israeli parliament between them, further eroded their power. Their merged party was projected to draw just six to seven seats in parliament.

Netanyahu faces charges of fraud, breach of trust, and bribery in three cases—making him the first sitting Israeli prime minister to go on trial. He has said he’s innocent, alleging that he’s the target of biased media, police, and prosecutors.

Despite the legal troubles, Netanyahu has managed to keep members of his Likud party solidly behind him by arguing that he’s the only one capable of leading the country. He won a Likud primary challenge in December by a landslide. Netanyahu has also convinced right-wing and religious allies to stay loyal, in part by promising to annex up to one-third of the occupied West Bank after elections—in line with a peace plan presented by U.S. President Donald Trump last month.

“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,” Israel Democracy Institute President Yohanan Plesner said in a statement.

“Israelis voiced their support for the man they perceive to have bringing them security and prosperity.”

Joshua Mitnick is a journalist based in Tel Aviv. Twitter: @joshmitnick

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