Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed early victory in Israel’s general election—the country’s third in under a year—after exit polls and partial results placed him ahead of his chief rival, Benny Gantz.
With some 90 percent of ballots tallied, Netanyahu’s Likud party held roughly 29.4 percent of the vote, equal to around 36 Knesset seats, and a total of 59 seats for his right-wing alliance.
However, Likud and its smaller ultra-religious and nationalist allies were two seats short of the 61-seat parliamentary majority required to form a government, the incomplete results on Israeli TV stations appeared to show.
Gantz’s centrist Blue and White Party followed with 26.3 percent, or some 32 seats, the partial results showed, pointing to a continued paralysis of Israel’s political system.
Netanyahu, 70, claimed a “giant victory” as he addressed a raucous crowd of thousands of ecstatic supporters at 2:30 a.m. However, if Netanyahu falls short of a majority in the 120-seat parliament, another round of complicated political negotiations with potential allies awaits.
“This is a victory against all the odds, because we stood against powerful forces,” Netanyahu said. “They already eulogized us. Our opponents said the Netanyahu era is over.”
The longest-serving leader in Israeli history vowed to “heal rifts” and said he had spoken with all of the leaders of Likud’s natural coalition allies: Shas, United Torah Judaism, and Yamina, The Times of Israel reported.
“Tomorrow, after we’ve got some sleep, we will meet [with right-wing leaders] to form a strong, stable government, a good national government for Israel,” he said. “I intend to be the prime minister of every citizen of Israel, every right-wing voter, left-wing voter, Jews and non-Jews, every sector and every gender.
“In this campaign, we saw the challenge of corona—there wasn’t a day in which I didn’t make time for constant meetings on protecting all Israel’s citizens. That’s my mission as prime minister.
“We must avoid any more elections. It’s time to heal the rifts. It’s time for reconciliation.”
A Likud spokesman said he expected Netanyahu would manage to gain a governing majority and establish a coalition government by getting lawmakers from the opposing camp to cross sides. “There will be defectors,” Jonatan Urich told Channel 12 News.
It is not yet clear where Netanyahu will secure the extra seats required for a parliamentary majority.
In the previous election last September, Blue and White edged Likud, taking 33 seats to its rival’s 32, but Gantz, like Netanyahu, was unable to put together a ruling coalition.
Netanyahu’s reelection bid has been complicated since the last election by his indictment on charges of bribery, breach of trust, and fraud over allegations he granted state favors worth millions of dollars to Israeli media barons in return for favorable press coverage and that he wrongfully received gifts.
The first trial of a sitting prime minister in Israel is due to begin March 17. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.
According to The Times of Israel, election officials reportedly said they wouldn’t count the 4,076 ballots cast by Israelis under home quarantine due to coronavirus fears. The voters who self-quarantined recently traveled back to Israel from coronavirus hot spots. As of the morning of March 3, the ballots remained untouched at special polling stations, and they may be counted by medics, according to reports.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.