Jerusalem (CNN)Benjamin Netanyahu has thanked the voters of Israel for making his Likud the largest party after the country’s fourth election in two years but exit poll projections by the three main Israeli TV networks all point increasingly towards a period of renewed political deadlock.
In a moment of ritualized drama, the TV networks published their exit poll projections within a minute of polling stations closing at 10 p.m. local time (4 p.m. ET). All three forecast a slim majority of 61 seats in the 120-seat parliament for Netanyahu’s preferred right-wing and religious bloc.
But within four hours, as results started to come in, all three channels had revised their forecasts away from the Israeli leader, with two forecasting 60 seats for Netanyahu’s bloc, while a third had it on just 59.
Likud itself was forecast to win 30 seats by two of the channels, putting it twelve seats ahead of its nearest challenger, centrist Yesh Atid, led by former TV news anchor Yair Lapid.
Addressing Likud supporters in Jerusalem at 2:30 a.m. Netanyahu was defiant, saying he would do everything in his power to build a stable right-wing government and prevent the country from being dragged to fifth elections.
“I rule out nobody in the Knesset who believes in these principles,” he said, making a clear appeal to Gideon Saar – who quit Likud at the end of last year to launch his own New Hope party in opposition to Netanyahu – to come back into the fold.
New Hope appears to have fared badly in Tuesday’s poll, but its predicted six seats would be more than enough to secure Netanyahu a majority in parliament, alongside support from two religious parties, plus a right-wing party led by former Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, and the far-right Religious Zionism party — which includes followers of extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose own political party was banned from the Knesset in the 1980s for being racist.
Even though final result projections have been slipping away from Netanyahu, his fractured opponents appear to face an even tougher job to build a workable coalition. On paper, an alliance of seven parties spanning the spectrum from right to left including Arab parties, could find itself with more than 60 seats, but given the history of Israeli politics, where no Arab party has ever sat in government, it is hard to imagine such a coalition being easily formed.
Even so, main opposition leader Yair Lapid, thanking voters for appearing to have stopped the Religious Zionism party from becoming part of the government, vowed to work with other party leaders in the weeks ahead.
“We will wait for the final results but as it stands there won’t be a government based on the votes of the racists and homophobes. I’ve started speaking to party leaders … but we’ll do everything to create a sane government in Israel,” he said.
The election was triggered in December when parliament failed to agree on a budget, ending a seven-month power sharing arrangement between Netanyahu and his main rival in the three previous elections, Benny Gantz. The former army chief emerged from the unity agreement, signed during the first wave of rising coronavirus infections last April, bitterly disillusioned about his decision to join the government, admitting, “I was wrong.”
But contrary to expectations several weeks ago, Gantz appears to have fared surprisingly well in Tuesday’s election, with two TV networks projecting him finishing with eight seats. He cut an upbeat figure addressing supporters in the early hours of Wednesday declaring, “If we are forced to face a fifth round of elections, I will vigilantly protect our democracy, rule of law and security. Because Israel comes first.”
Center-left Labor, under its new leader Merav Michaeli, and the leftist Meretz party also appear to have performed at the upper end of expectations, on track to win about 14 seats between them.
The Joint List, an alliance of three mainly Arab parties committed to ousting Netanyahu, is predicted to win in the range of eight or nine seats. The United Arab List, which split from the Joint List in January, is not projected to cross the electoral threshold of 3.25%.
Final results could take a week to be certified. After that, the leaders of all parties that have won representation in the Knesset will visit President Reuven Rivlin and tell him who they support for Prime Minister. No later than April 7, the President will ask one of them to try to build a government. If current projections are borne out there will be little optimism that coalition negotiations will yield a result, with many appearing resigned to another general election campaign sometime over the summer.