Netanyahu edges ahead, but no clear winner
JERUSALEM – 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 percent 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, a dominant global player who has built a strong economy, kept the country safe and delivered a series of long-sought diplomatic victories, many of them thanks to President Donald Trump.
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. 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 a electionnight headquarters in Tel Aviv to cheers. 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 will meet with representatives of all the parties and, based on their recommendations, decide to call upon whoever he thinks has the best chance to form a government.
“For the first time in Israel’s history the president’s role may be more than symbolic, and he may have to exercise judgment in choosing who will form the next government,” Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, wrote on Twitter.
As Netanyahu has drifted steadily to the right, the left has migrated to the center, after years of violence in the early 2000s and the absence of a viable peace process since.
He has benefited from support from President Trump, who in the past two years has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal, recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and just two weeks ago recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.