David M. Halbfinger and Isabel Kershner
Israel’s election was too close to call early Wednesday, with neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor his top rival, former army chief Benny Gantz, immediately commanding enough support to form a majority coalition, according to exit polls.
But Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party appeared to have come out ahead of Netanyahu’s conservative Likud, giving a small third party the power to decide the outcome. And his avowed desire to force a unity coalition including both their parties made it likely that, if the projections held, Gantz would be given the first chance of forming a government.
The murky outcome itself was a humiliating blow to Netanyahu, 69, the nation’s longest-serving prime minister, who forced the do-over election when he failed to assemble a coalition in May, rather than let Gantz have a try. For the second time in a row, his onetime deputy, Avigdor Lieberman, denied Netanyahu a majority, this time urging the formation of a unity government.
“According to the current results, Netanyahu did not complete his mission,” Gantz told a crowd of cheering supporters in Tel Aviv early Wednesday. “We did.”
Netanyahu told a crowd in Tel Aviv that he would wait for the actual results, but planned to enter negotiations to establish “a strong Zionist government and prevent a dangerous anti-Zionist government.”
Netanyahu campaigned frenetically right up until the polls closed Tuesday night, warning right-wing Jewish voters that Arabs were turning out in large numbers and flouting Election Day bans on campaign propaganda to spur his supporters into action. With indictments against him looming in three corruption cases, the election’s less-than-vindicating apparent outcome puts his future in grave jeopardy.
Israeli exit polls have often proven unreliable, and the official results, expected to trickle in overnight, could change the picture sharply.
Netanyahu was aiming for a narrow coalition with right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties. Gantz pledged to forge a broad, secular government. But in the hours after the election, Israel was effectively on hold. Just five months after the last inconclusive ballot, the country could now face weeks of feverish coalition negotiations.
The clearest winner Tuesday, according to exit polls, was Lieberman, the longtime Netanyahu ally turned nemesis who leads Yisrael Beiteinu, an ultranationalist secular party. Lieberman immediately moved to play the role of kingmaker.
“We only have one option,” he told supporters Tuesday night. “A broad, liberal, national government made up of Yisrael Beiteinu, Likud and Blue and White.”