Divided Israeli electorate denies Benjamin Netanyahu clear win

Polls suggest neither the incumbent prime minister or main rival have clear path to premiership

Supporters of Benny Gantz's Blue and White party react to exit polls in Israel's parliamentary election at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel April 9, 2019. REUTERS/Corinna Kern
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Just moments after exit polls were announced, Israel's Benny Gantz claimed victory in Tuesday's election with projections placing his Blue and White faction between dead heat and four seats ahead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud.

However, if the polls are accurate, neither side have a clear route to the premiership.

The early results were merely projections that may not be borne out in the counting and it is likely that backroom negotiations will already be taking place to form a coalition that could alter the political make-up of Israel.

Despite Mr Netanyahu's party projected not to come out as the largest in the Knesset, he could retain the prime ministership through coalitions with right-wing allies. Mr Gantz too will be seeking to attract backers from the numerous smaller parties in a bid to form a new administration. No Israeli party has ever won an outright majority.

Israel election live: Benny Gantz takes slim lead in exit polls

The prime minister also declared victory for his party and its allies, saying on Twitter that “The right-wing bloc led by the Likud won a clear victory. I thank the citizens of Israel for their trust. I will begin forming a right-wing government with our natural partners tonight.”

Israel’s Channel 11 puts Mr Gantz one seat ahead of Mr Netanyahu, Channel 12 has the newcomer four seats ahead and Channel 13 has the two sides neck and neck.

In previous elections, the first exit poll has been off by several seats.

But while supporters chanted, sang and waved flags at the Blue and White post-poll party, the scenes in the Likud event were muted, the Times of Israel reported.

Hardline politician Naftali Bennett attempted to reassure his backers that they would meet the electoral threshold needed to win seats in the Knesset after the exit poll projected his New Right party falling short.

Israelis across the country headed to the polls on Tuesday for closely-contested parliamentary elections that have been viewed as a referendum on the embattled prime minister facing criminal prosecution. Mr Netanyahu would also be the first prime minister to be re-elected while on notice for indictment on corruption charges.

If he retains his position, he will become the country's longest-serving leader and cement his legacy that has shifted Israeli politics and society towards the right.

A former army chief, Mr Gantz is a newcomer to politics. He took on the incumbent with an alliance formed alongside three other centrist politicians and former generals.

Election days are a public day off for most Israelis and turnout among Jewish-Israeli voters is typically high. Arab and Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up more than twenty per cent of the country's population, however, usually play a marginal role in Israeli politics as permanent fixtures of the opposition.

Voter turnout as polls closed indicated less than 50 per cent of eligible Arab voters cast a ballot.

Arab leaders were making a last-minute push to implore their followers to head to the polls.

Ayman Odeh, a leading Arab lawmaker, broadcast on Facebook live while religious leaders broadcast calls on mosque loudspeakers.

The exit polls projected Arab Hadash party taking six seats but the United Arab List-Balad taking no seats.

Israeli Arab politician Ayman Odeh (C) of the Hadash party speaks during a Facebook live video event at the party's headquarters in Nazareth in northern Israel on election tonight on April 9, 2019. / AFP / Ahmad GHARABLI

Things were a little different in 2015, when the Arab-majority parties came together to form the Joint List. The union was precipitated by a raising of the threshold of votes that a party required to enter the Knesset, which was seen as a move to limit the chances of smaller Arab parties. The Joint List became the third largest party in the Knesset thanks in part to an unprecedented Arab turnout at the polls.

The political landscape in Israel in 2019 is quite different. The Joint List has split into two coalitions due to infighting over personalities and ideologies. Arab voters are frustrated about the split and the fact that, despite their large showing at the last election, their politicians have not been able to stop a slew of new laws and policies that discriminate against Arab citizens. They have also failed to make inroads in policies to reduce rampant poverty and violence in Arab communities.

Last summer, Israel passed a "nation-state law", which codified Israel as the state of Jews and downgraded Arabic from an official language. Last month, Mr Netanyahu pushed through an alliance with several right-wing groups, including a Jewish supremacist group with ties to terrorism.

In the run up to the election, Mr Netanyahu promised in a TV interview that he would annex the occupied West Bank if he won.

Some Israeli-Palestinians have called for a boycott of the vote, while others displayed apathy and frustration at a lack of choice. Polling predicted that only about half of the country’s Arab and Palestinian citizens planned to vote.

While there was no unrest marring the day, controversy ensued after Likud poll workers wore cameras in polls to Arab areas.

A Likud party official confirmed that cameras were used, Reuters reported, saying they did it to protect against vote rigging, which has not been an issue in previous elections.

"They are not hidden cameras. They are cameras in the open," Kobi Matza of Likud told Kan radio station. "We are worried about counterfeit [votes] in the Arab sector."

In the Negev, an Israeli NGO called Zazim organised buses to bring voters from unrecognised Bedouin villages to their voting places: as residents of unrecognised settlements, they have no voting centers in their villages and have to travel up to 50 kilometres to vote in other places.

As polls neared closing, Mr Netanyahu, along with leaders of other parties like Naftalie Bennet and Ahmed Tibi appealed to voters, warning that they wouldn't win, or for the latter two pass the threshold, without them. Late in the afternoon Mr Netanyahu canceled an event in Ashdod to convene a crisis meeting over what he said was low turnout in traditionally strong Likud areas. He made similar statements during the 2015 election.

"We are going to win," Mr Gantz told voters in Ashdod. "We're half a metre away. One final push and we're going to get it done. Good luck to us all."

As a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem, Mira Attieh, 20, a student at the Hebrew University, can’t vote, but she was out anyway, campaigning for leftist party Meretz.

Two months ago, she applied to become an Israeli citizen, a process she is hoping will only take one year but for many takes far longer.

"As an Arab, I love this country a lot," she said.

"I want it to have a big future.”

Standing by the Meretz table at a polling station in Abu Tor, a mixed Jerusalem neighbourhood, besides a larger stand for Blue and White supporters, Ms Attieh said the most important thing in this election was that all voters, including Arabs, had their say to try to keep out the extreme right. "They tear apart all of the people, not just Arabs,” she said.

She’s holding on to hope that by the next elections, she'll be able to vote.