Written by Isabel Kershner and David M Halbfinger
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s conservative prime minister for the past decade, and his chief rival, Benny Gantz, a centrist former military chief, were locked in a tight race in Tuesday’s parliamentary election, according to partial returns and surveys of voters leaving the polls.
With about 65 per cent of the ballots counted, Netanyahu’s Likud party appeared to have edged ahead of Gantz’s Blue and White, and a count of the broader blocs supporting each party gave Likud a clear advantage in being able to form a governing coalition.
Regardless of who becomes the next prime minister, the election appeared to be a grave scare for Netanyahu, 69.
Gantz’s performance was a remarkable achievement for a political newcomer and a brand-new party. Gantz, a career soldier who retired as chief of staff in 2015, entered politics last year for the first time, joining forces with two other former army chiefs.
More than 1 million Israelis appeared to have voted for Gantz’s Blue and White party, placing it in the position of being the main alternative to Israel’s right wing, a spot once held by the Labor party.
The results were likely to take fuller shape as vote counting progressed in the early morning. The question of who will form the next government may not be known until the ballots of soldiers, prisoners and hospital patients are counted later this week.
The exit polls of the three main television channels were sufficiently disparate that both sides claimed victory.
“This is a night of tremendous victory,” Netanyahu said after entering a campaign celebration around 2 a.m. He said he expected to forge a new coalition with the right-wing parties he called his “natural partners,” but that he intended to be “the prime minister of all the citizens of Israel.”
Earlier, Gantz entered an election-night headquarters in Tel Aviv to cheers, declaring, “A great light is shining over our Israel.”
He promised to be “the prime minister of everyone and not just of those who voted for us,” and argued, when early exit polls had him in the lead, that the largest party should be the one granted the mandate to form the next government.
That decision will be up to President Reuven Rivlin, who in the next few days is expected to choose the party leader he believes has the best chance of assembling a parliamentary majority.