Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s prospects for retaining power in Israel are looking uncertain after exit polls in the country’s fourth parliamentary election in two years projected yet another impasse.
With final results not due until later in the week, the forecasts on Wednesday indicated that even Netanyahu’s stewardship of a world-beating COVID-19 vaccination rollout – a showcase of his campaign – may not have been enough to propel the leader of the right-wing Likud party to victory.
Initial projections by Israel’s three main TV channels after Tuesday’s vote gave Netanyahu an edge, based on the potential support of an ultra-nationalist rival, Naftali Bennett, once his defence minister.
But amended forecasts indicated deadlock even with Bennett’s prospective backing, with the 120 seats in the parliament divided equally between Netanyahu’s likely opponents and supporters.
Israel’s opposition made a better showing than expected and support for Likud dipped, exit polls indicated, after Netanyahu’s critics highlighted corruption charges against the country’s longest-serving leader and accused him of mishandling the pandemic.
On social media, Netanyahu claimed a “huge victory” over the group of left-wing, centre and rightist parties trying to unseat him – even as the TV projections failed to bear that out.
He did not repeat the claim in an election night speech at a Likud rally, saying only that its projected number of seats in parliament, approximately 30, was “a great achievement” and that he hoped to form a “stable right-wing government”.
Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, reporting from West Jerusalem, said while Likud appeared to have again retained its status as the biggest party within the Israeli parliament, the path to a majority result was far from clear.
“The initial exit polls showed a slim majority in terms of a potential coalition for Netanyahu with just 61 of a 120 seats in the parliament meaning that he would have that majority. But those exit polls are shifting,” said Fawcett.
“One of them still gives him that slight slim lead. Another one puts it a 60-60 tie between the pro and anti-Netanyahu blocs. And the third, now gives Netanyahu a slight trail of 59-61.”
Israeli right’s ‘huge victory’
Unless coalition-building talks break a deadlock, voters could be heading towards a fifth election.
Bennett, whose far-right Yamina party was forecast to win seven seats, shares Netanyahu’s hardline nationalist ideology, including annexing parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and would seem to be more likely to ultimately join Netanyahu.
Whether he could tip the balance will depend on the final results. The 48-year-old said he would wait until they were in before announcing any political moves.
During the campaign, Bennett said he would not serve under an anti-Netanyahu bloc’s most likely leader, 57-year-old Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party.
According to the exit polls, Yesh Atid took second place with 17 to 18 parliamentary seats.
Al Jazeera’s Fawcett said while the exit polls indicated no clear winner, they showed a “huge victory for the Israeli right”.
“There is still the potential that Netanyahu might be able to peel away defectors from avowedly anti-Netanyahu right-wing parties. So there are more options on the table for him.”
The question of forming a cohesive coalition “is much more difficult for the anti-Netanyahu block”, Fawcett said, “given their very wide-ranging and other ideological differences that it is for Netanyahu on the right”.
A Netanyahu government with Bennett and a clutch of other ultra-nationalists on board would result in one of the most right-wing governments in Israel’s history.
Netanyahu and Bennett’s partners would include a pair of ultra-Orthodox religious parties and the “Religious Zionists,” a party whose leaders are openly racist and homophobic. One of its leaders, Itamar Ben-Gvir, is a disciple of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was branded a terrorist group by the United States for its anti-Arab racism before Kahane was assassinated in New York in 1990.
Another shaky coalition?
Stephen Zunes, a professor of political science at the United States-based University of San Francisco, said the “overall right-ward drift in Israel is very strong and very concerning”.
“It’s quite amazing to see an Israel – that for its first 30 years of existence was overwhelmingly controlled by a centre-left coalition that modelled itself after the social democratic parties of Western Europe – is now so firmly in the hands of a right-wing and corrupt political figure as Netanyahu,” Zunes said, from Santa Cruz in the US state of California.
But despite the fact that Netanyahu has once again come out on top, “it’s still a long distance from an absolute 61-seat majority,” said Zunes.
“This is going to be yet another shaky coalition government and we may once again see people going back to the polls.”
The dominant political figure of his generation, Netanyahu, 71, has been in power continuously since 2009. But the Israeli electorate is deeply polarised, with supporters hailing him as “King Bibi” and opponents holding up placards calling him “Crime Minister”.
During the campaign, Netanyahu repeatedly drew attention to Israel’s highly successful coronavirus vaccination campaign. He moved aggressively to secure enough vaccines for Israel’s 9.3 million people, and in three months the country had inoculated some 80 percent of its adult population.
That has enabled the government to open restaurants, stores and the airport just in time for election day.
He also tried to portray himself as a global statesman, pointing to the four diplomatic accords he reached with Arab countries last year. Those agreements were brokered by his close ally Donald Trump, then-president of the United States.
Peace process sidelined
Netanyahu’s opponents say the prime minister bungled many other aspects of the pandemic, particularly by allowing his ultra-Orthodox allies to ignore lockdown rules which ensured a high infection rate for much of the year.
More than 6,000 Israelis have died from COVID-19 and the economy continues to struggle with double-digit unemployment figures.
They also point to Netanyahu’s corruption trial, saying someone who is under indictment for serious crimes is not fit to lead the country. Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals that he dismisses as a witch hunt by a hostile media and legal system.
Personality politics so overtook the race that there was almost no mention of the Palestinians during the campaign after years of frozen peace talks.
The day before the vote, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh described the election as an “internal” matter for Israelis but condemned the conditions Palestinians endure under Israeli occupation.
“All their electoral campaigns were at the expense of our land and our people, and parties are competing over more land, more settlements,” he said.
In Gaza, Hazem Qassem, a spokesman for Hamas, said the Israeli election seemed to be taking place between the “right and extreme right”.
Analysts, meanwhile, said Palestinian citizens of Israel would stay home in larger numbers this time around because of their disappointment with the disintegration of the umbrella Joint List party.