Exit polls from Israel’s third election within a year suggested Benjamin Netanyahu and his rightwing allies are ahead but still one seat short of a parliamentary majority needed to form a government.
The unofficial figures from three major television channels released on Monday evening showed the prime minister’s Likud party with around 37 seats. Retired general Benny Gantz and his Blue and White party, which has run a campaign focused on Netanyahu’s upcoming criminal corruption trial, had about 33 seats.
Post-voting polls have proved unreliable in the past and minor differences could significantly alter the makeup of Israel’s next government.
Regardless, the polls suggested a stunning turnaround in support for the embattled leader, and he was quick to claim a victory on Twitter. “We won by believing in our own way and by the people of Israel,” he said.
Later speaking at an election rally in Tel Aviv he said to cheering crowds: “We stood in front of strong forces. They told us we are going to lose, that it was the end of the Netanyahu era.”
“We turned lemons into lemonade.”
In a statement, Likud said Netanyahu had spoken to all the heads of right-wing parties and “agreed to form a strong national government for Israel as soon as possible”.
Gantz admitted “disappointment”, telling supporters in Tel Aviv that he had hoped for “a different result”.
Netanyahu could win if his alliance with smaller rightwing parties gains a 61-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
If the official results due on Tuesday morning are the same as the exit poll, his party will only get 60 seats and Israeli politicians could again be plunged into weeks of high-stakes negotiations and even the possibility of a fourth election if the process breaks down.
Responding to the exit polls, Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian envoy to the UK, said Israeli voters “rewarded hate, corruption & the promise to annex the occupied territories,” referring to Netanyahu’s recent promises to take more Palestinian land.
More than 6.3 million people were eligible to cast their votes in polling stations that closed at 10pm (8pm GMT).
For the more than 5,500 Israelis who were under precautionary home isolation after returning from areas of the world affected by coronavirus, separate polling stations made of plastic sheeting had been set up just for them around the country.
In an empty parking lot in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Talpiot, one such booth was staffed by election officials in full white protective suits. Using a megaphone, a police officer called for the people, who wore blue gloves and face masks to reduce the chance of contamination, to enter one by one.
Ten Israelis have contracted the virus and are quarantined. The health ministry, however, has urged people that it is safe to vote.
Over the weekend, in the final stretch of a campaign that has increasingly descended into mudslinging, Netanyahu and Gantz ripped into each other.
Netanyahu told Channel 12 that Gantz was “not fit” to be prime minister. “He is weak; he’s not a leader,” he said. Gantz said in another interview that his opponent was acting as if he was part of a mafia.
The country has been in a state of political crisis for almost 12 months after two previous general elections failed to produce a clear winner.
Central to the deadlock is the Israeli prime minister, the longest-serving in the country’s history, who has managed to persuade allies and even some foes that rematch after rematch is preferable to any deal that does not include him as leader.
Gantz has focused his campaign on Netanyahu’s alleged corruption and anti-democratic moves, but he also failed to form a government after coming out marginally ahead in the previous election.
In an embarrassing blow to Gantz four days before the election, a recording emerged on Thursday of his top strategist, Israel Bachar, privately complaining to his rabbi of his boss’s lack of “courage”. Local press reported the rabbi had secretly recorded the conversation.
Gantz fired Bachar for the comments but the words played into one of Netanyahu’s biggest campaign tactics – arguing that Gantz does not have the stomach to face the country’s security issues.
Netanyahu’s other election strategy has been to energise his hardline nationalist base, with promises of land grabs from Palestinians.
On Tuesday, 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.
The prime minister made similar appeals before the previous votes. In April, he said he would annex all current settlements, and in September he promised to go further, by claiming sovereignty over a third of the entire West Bank.
He has also looked to his rightwing global ally, Donald Trump, to help him convince Israelis that he is the only leader able to garner concessions from world powers.
In late January, the US president appeared to gift Netanyahu just that, revealing a “vision for peace” plan in the White House that read like a checklist of demands from the Israeli far right. It gave the country Jerusalem, huge swathes of the Palestinian territories and permanent security control over Palestinians, whose leadership rejected the plan as flagrantly biased.
In preparation for election day, the Israeli military closed crossings with the occupied West Bank, where more than 2.5 million Palestinians live under Israeli rule but cannot vote, and Gaza, where 2 million more live under a blockade.
Meanwhile, a November indictment for three major corruption cases against him has dented Netanyahu’s image. Netanyahu, who denies the charges, is expected to appear in court on 17 March, the first day of his criminal trial.
Ari Gorlin, who works for a software company in Jerusalem, said he had long respected Netanyahu as “smart and capable” but was voting for Gantz due to the corruption allegations.
“He was a good leader. But with time and power, people can become corrupt,” he said as he headed into a polling station.
It is still not clear to what extent the two major developments since the September election – Trump’s plan and Netanyahu’s indictment – would affect voters. In a survey released last week, the Israeli Voice Index, the most popular prediction for the election outcome was another election.