Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed a premature victory following a shocking comeback in Israel’s third attempt within a year to elect a leader, even as early counts and exit polls showed he was still short of securing a historic fifth term.
By Tuesday morning, less than half of the results had been recorded but unofficial exit polls gave the prime minister’s Likud party 37 seats, and a total of 59 for his rightwing alliance.
He was just two seats shy of a 61-seat parliamentary majority and would only be able to form a government in the coming weeks by enticing rival politicians to join him.
Regardless, the result was stunning turnaround for a man two weeks away from the start of a major criminal corruption trial. He is expected to appear in a Jerusalem court on 17 March on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three major cases.
His opponents, retired general Benny Gantz and his Blue and White party, took 33 seats, exit polls showed.
In the early hours of Tuesday morning at a rowdy election party in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu told cheering crowds waving blue flags that his “victory” was sweeter than the first time he became prime minister in 1996 because it was harder.
“We stood in front of strong forces. They told us we are going to lose, that it was the end of the Netanyahu era,” he said. “We turned lemons into lemonade.”
Responding to the results, Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian envoy to the UK, said Israeli voters had “rewarded hate, corruption and the promise to annex the occupied territories”, referring to Netanyahu’s recent promises to take more Palestinian land.
Gantz had focused his campaign on Netanyahu’s alleged corruption and anti-democratic moves. The strategy appears to have failed three times.
At the Blue and White election party, the room soon emptied as rumours started to spread of a potentially disastrous result. “We are not beating around the bush and not telling ourselves stories: I share the sense of pain and of disappointment,” Gantz said.
There were concerns before voting day that fears of spreading coronavirus and fatigue with repeat elections would lower turnout. Those were quickly dispelled as officials showed 71% of the electorate – more than the previous two elections – had voted.
Authorities had even set up separate polling stations made of plastic sheeting for the more than 5,500 Israelis who were under precautionary home isolation after returning from areas of the world affected by coronavirus.
Israel has been in an extended state of political crisis for almost 12 months after two previous general elections failed to produce a clear winner. To break the deadlock, Netanyahu had sought to energise his hardline nationalist base with promises of land grabs from Palestinians.
A week ago, he announced he would go ahead with a highly controversial plan to build settlements east of Jerusalem. The plan would almost completely encircle Palestinian neighbourhoods in the holy city.