If confirmed by official results, the outcome would be a clear disappointment to Netanyahu, an indomitable campaigner who blitzed the country through the final hours of the race. With two of his allied right-wing religious parties falling short, political analysts could identify no ready path for Israel’s longest-serving prime minister to continue in office.
When Netanyahu finally appeared at 3 a.m. Wednesday in his largely empty election night headquarters in Tel Aviv, he was defiant. He told the few remaining supporters that he would fight on to ensure that Israel’s Arab citizens, whose party fared exceptionally well at the polls, would not figure in the next government.
“Better to lose your voice than lose the country,” a hoarse Netanyahu said. “At this time, the State of Israel needs a Zionist government. There will be no government based on anti-
Zionist Arab parties that deny the very existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Hours earlier, the official Likud election celebration had begun loudly — some supporters rushed in carrying a “Trump 2020” banner to celebrate Netanyahu’s close ties to the U.S. president — but the hall grew quieter after the release of the polls, soon emptying out.
“It doesn’t look good,” said Henry Kadosh, 73, from the city of Rishon Lezion.
Few Likud members, though, were willing to count out Netanyahu, who has proved himself one of Israel’s great partisan combatants and is a vaunted political escape artist.
“We know there is wishful thinking that Netanyahu will step down, but that’s not going to happen,” Minister for Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi said over loud pop music in the echoing convention hall. More likely, he said, was an outcome most Israelis would dread: months of political gridlock leading to a third election.
But standing nearby, political journalist and Netanyahu biographer Anshel Pfeffer suggested that the result spelled deep trouble for the political icon universally known here as Bibi.
“This is the first time in 10 years that there are signs the spell of Netanyahu is breaking,” Pfeffer said.
While Israeli exit polls have a mixed record of accurately predicting election results, the three polls would have to be egregiously incorrect for either of the leading parties to actually approach an outright majority. Official results were expected to begin trickling out Wednesday.
Speaking early Wednesday to a crowd of supporters, Gantz vowed not to give up the fight against Netanyahu. “According to the results right now, Netanyahu didn’t manage to finish his mission,” he said.
“Millions of citizens chose to say no to incitement and schism and yes to unity,” said Gantz, who repeatedly asked his excited supporters for patience in coming weeks. He said he plans “to speak with everyone” in negotiating a coalition, specifically noting former defense minister Avigdor Liberman, an erstwhile ally of Netanyahu.
The exit polls gave heart to Gantz’s supporters, even as they acknowledged that the polls are notoriously imprecise and that the close vote could mean months of uncertainty. The country’s complex coalition rules will allow multiple parties to play a part in assembling a governing coalition, but Gantz’s team has concluded that he is well positioned to get the first crack at building one.
“I’m very excited, and these are good results for us,” said Blue and White strategist David Berkovish at the party’s Tel Aviv election gathering. “But we need to be patient to see the real numbers. Israel is split in the middle, and it shows, election after election.”
The race largely came down to a referendum on the political future of Netanyahu.
After failing to form a government following a similarly close vote in April, Netanyahu forced the extraordinary second election. He campaigned fiercely, trumpeting his close relationships with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin and unspooling a string of controversial pronouncements, including pledging to annex parts of the West Bank and alleging widespread voting fraud in Arab precincts. He may have fallen short.
“Assuming the numbers hold, this is almost Bibi’s worst nightmare,” said Aaron David Miller, a longtime Israel specialist and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This is the guy who has pulled many rabbits out of his hat, but I think the magic is gone.”
Standing in the middle of the coming blizzard of dealmaking is Liberman, who in the spring denied Likud the majority it needed by one seat. Liberman, a Moldovan-born former bouncer, appears to have won enough seats for his own secular nationalist faction Yisrael Beiteinu to once again play the role of kingmaker.
Liberman, speaking late Tuesday, urged the formation of a unity government that would include Likud, Blue and White and his party. Gantz, among other centrists, has said his party would serve in a coalition with Likud only if someone other than Netanyahu led the party. Liberman stopped short of announcing whom he would endorse as prime minister.
“Both security- and economy-wise, this is an emergency,” Liberman said, speaking to supporters.
By midnight, Israel’s boisterous commentariat was buzzing with all the possible coalitions that could emerge in coming weeks. For Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the most likely scenario was a negotiation period in which one of the various stubborn contenders would have to reconsider his earlier stances.
“Somebody is going to have to stray from their campaign promises,” he said. “It either has to be Liberman willing to join a Netanyahu government, or Gantz willing to govern with Netanyahu, or it has to be Likud deciding it would rather be in government without Netanyahu than out of government with Netanyahu.”
Analysts were unsure how the unusual do-over campaign, largely unfolding over the summer holidays, would affect voter turnout, which typically nears 70 percent. Public transportation is free on election day, and many workers get the day off.
Voter turnout Tuesday was measured at 69.4 percent, an increase of 1.5 percent from April’s 67.9 percent turnout.
Among the surprise results was an apparent surge in support for Arab parties, which initial projections showed could win as many as 15 seats in the Knesset. Such a showing would be historic.
In an interview with Israel’s Channel 13 television, Ayman Odeh, the chairman of the Joint List and a current Arab member of the Knesset, said he believed Netanyahu’s repeated attacks on Arabs inspired more to come out and vote than ever before.
“There is no other prime minister who incited against us like Netanyahu. All of them put together didn’t incite against us like Netanyahu did on his own,” he said. “First the Arabs were coming out in droves, then the Arabs were stealing [the election], then the Arabs want to destroy us and our children.”
“There’s a limit. The Arab citizens undoubtedly felt that they became a persecuted minority.”
Arab voters said much the same.
“Today is a very important day because we have one aim — which is bringing down Benjamin Netanyahu,” said Adnan Zoabi, 27, a teacher who voted in Sulam, an Arab village in northern Israel. “With all of our differences, we have one aim today. God willing, we’ll succeed.”
Miriam Berger contributed to this report.