JERUSALEM – Exit polls in Israel show that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not won enough seats to put together a majority coalition of 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. The same exit polls also show, however, that neither does challenger and former Israeli army head Benny Gantz.
Israel’s three main television stations had slightly different results based on their own exit polls. One had Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White tied with 32 seats apiece. Another had Blue and White at 34 and Likud at 33. A third had Blue and White at 33, and Likud at 31.
Netanyahu did not claim victory or concede defeat as he spoke to supporters early Wednesday. He told them he would work in the coming days to assemble a “strong Zionist government that excludes Arab parties.
Gantz said in front of his cheering supporters that he would try to form “a wide unity government that will express the will of the people.”
Once the final results are in, President Reuven Rivlin will hold consultations with each of the party heads, and ask either Netanyahu or Gantz to form a government.
The kingmaker this time, as last time, is former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the mostly Russian-supported Yisrael Beitenu party. He favors a unity government with Netanyahu’s Likud, Gantz’s Blue and White, and his party, without the ultra-Orthodox or other smaller parties.
After the last election, Gantz said he would consider this type of government only if Netanyahu stepped down as Likud leader. Netanyahu is facing a series of corruption allegations, including fraud and breach of trust.
Netanyahu had hoped to win a clear majority and many expected he would then legislate immunity for himself.
Yossi Klein Halevi of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem said the election was a vote for or against Netanyahu.
“Behind the personal referendum, there is a deeper referendum this election is expressing,” he said. “It worries me very much, because for the first time we have in effect a referendum on democracy.”