Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party emerged from Tuesday’s Israeli election in a virtual tie with the Zionist Union alliance headed by Isaac Herzog, according to exit polls, with each leader claiming he could form the next government.
But it was Netanyahu, who battled back after pre-election polls suggested he could be unseated, who seemed better positioned to assemble a parliamentary majority based on rightist and religious factions that have been his traditional allies.
His chances appeared to hinge on the enlistment of a center-right party, Kulanu, whose leader, Moshe Kahlon, campaigned on pocketbook issues and is holding out for the position of finance minister. He did not immediately indicate whether he would join a coalition with Netanyahu or Herzog.
Exit polls by Israel’s main television channels showed Likud and Zionist Union in a virtual dead heat. Channel Ten gave both parties 27 parliamentary seats, Channel One showed Likud ahead, 27 seats to 26, and Channel Two gave the tally as 28 to 27.
A united Arab slate emerged as the third largest parliamentary bloc in two of the exit polls, with 13 seats. That means that if Netanyahu and Herzog were to form a unity government, the head of the Arab bloc, Ayman Odeh, would be the country’s official opposition leader and entitled to classified security briefings from the prime minister.
Yesh Atid, led by former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, won 11 to 12 seats, according to the exit polls. Kahlon’s Kulanu won nine to 10 seats.
Actual vote tallies are expected to be available later Wednesday.
The preliminary results indicated that both Netanyahu and Herzog will have to compete for the support of smaller centrist and ultra-Orthodox parties to form a majority coalition in the 120-member legislature.
Each leader asserted that he could form a government.
“Against all the odds, we won a big victory for the Likud,” Netanyahu told cheering supporters, who chanted, “He’s a magician!”
“Now we have to form a strong and stable government,” Netanyahu added, saying he had already been in touch with other right-leaning factions to form a coalition.
At his own party rally, Herzog said that the election result “enables us to return to power” and that “everything is open.”
“I intend to make every effort to form a real social government for Israel,” he added, saying he had been in touch with heads of centrist parties who had called for social and economic reforms.
Herzog, who heads the Labor party, had run with Tzipi Livni, the leader of a small centrist party at the helm of the Zionist Union alliance.
Analysts said that he faced a more difficult task than Netanyahu of enlisting enough coalition partners to win a majority in parliament.
Herzog would have to bring together an unwieldy collection of centrist, leftist and ultra-Orthodox parties, some of whom have openly rejected partnerships with one another. “It’s almost mission impossible,” conceded Shelly Yachimovich, a candidate for the Zionist Union.
Herzog could try to form a minority coalition leaning on the outside support of Arab lawmakers, though commentators said that was unlikely. The last Israeli leader who led such a government was Yitzhak Rabin, who used the support of Arab Knesset members to hold onto power 20 years ago despite a government that did not control a majority.
In Israel’s political system, the party leader with the best chance of forming a majority coalition gets the nod from the state president to form a government. In the event that neither Herzog nor Netanyahu assembles a majority, President Reuven Rivlin could call on them to join forces in a unity government. The process could take weeks.
The inconclusive election results followed a tight race and pre-election polls showing an edge for Zionist Union. Fighting for his political survival, Netanyahu went on a media blitz in the last days of campaigning and repeatedly urged right-wing voters drifting to other parties to back Likud, warning that power was about to shift to the political left.
Those voters apparently responded to Netanyahu’s call to “close the gap” with Zionist Union, abandoning rightist parties whose numbers dropped in the exit polls.
“The Likudniks have come home,” said Danny Danon, a senior Likud leader.
With no clear majority for either a rightist or center-left bloc in the Knesset, the support of two centrist parties that campaigned on pocketbook issues could be critical to the formation of a coalition led by either Netanyahu or Herzog.
The results followed a tight race and pre-election polls showing an edge for the Zionist Union. Netanyahu sounded the alarm in the last days of campaigning and repeatedly urged right-wing voters drifting to other parties to back Likud, warning that power was about to shift to the political left.
Those voters apparently responded to his call to “close the gap” with the Zionist Union. “The Likudniks have come home,” said Danny Danon, a senior Likud leader.
Earlier in the day, Israel’s election commission chief had barred Netanyahu from broadcasting a new appeal to his followers for their support. The commission ruled that Netanyahu’s plan to broadcast a statement would violate the country’s ban on political ads on election day.
In a last-minute video appeal to supporters on his Facebook page, instead, Netanyahu warned that “the rule of the right is in danger” and that “Arab voters are going in droves to the polls” in buses provided by leftist groups.
“Go to the polls, bring your friends and family, vote Likud to close the gap,” he said.
The leader of the unified Arab bloc predicted that the comment would galvanize Arab voters, and it apparently did. Two-thirds of eligible Israeli Arabs voted, the largest margin ever.
In comments to McClatchy, Odeh, head of the Joint List, accused Netanyahu of “being afraid of the citizens.”
“Our response is to raise the voting participation so Bibi will not be prime minister,” he said.
McClatchy special correspondent Daniella Cheslow contributed to this report from Nazareth.