Exit polls show tight race in Israeli elections


–Netanyahu may be in a better position to form a coalition

TEL AVIV: Israelis voted on Tuesday in a fiercely fought election in which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is battling for political survival after more than a decade in power.

Final opinion polls predicted that most Israelis will vote for the party led by Netanyahu’s main rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, but the polls put Netanyahu and his Likud party in a stronger position to assemble a governing coalition.

The initial exit polls from the Israeli election show a very tight outcome.

Israel’s Channel 11 showed Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party leading Netanyahu’s Likud by one seat, with 37 compared to the incumbent’s 36. It predicted Netanyahu would be in a better position to form a government, giving the right-wing bloc a 64 seat majority in the 120 seat Knesset.

Israel’s Channel 12 said Gantz’s party would win 37 seats in the 120-seat Knesset and Netanyahu’s would take 33 seats. That exit poll indicated that left-wing and right-wing parties would split the Knesset equally, with each side winning 60 seats.

Channel 13’s exit poll said Gantz’ party and Netanyahu’s would each win 36 seats. But again, the exit poll put Netanyahu in a stronger position to form a coalition, with the right-wing bloc looking to capture a 66-seat majority.

By 8 p.m. the turnout levels were at 61.3 per cent, compared to 62.4 per cent last election at the same time, according to elections committee.

The low Arab turnout, which may have dropped by as much as 12 per cent, could have a “dramatic impact” on the results, said Yohanan Plesner, head of the Israel Democracy Institute. If the Arab share drops to six seats, it could boost the right-wing parties and allow them to make a coalition with as many as 70 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, he said.

While about 40 slates contested the election, there are 14 parties that appear to have the potential to meet the minimum 3.25% vote threshold needed to enter the Knesset. Out of the six on the centre-left, three are at risk of not crossing the threshold. On the right, only two out of five look certain to cross the threshold, he said.

The two main parties, Gantz’s Blue and White and Netanyahu’s Likud, have set up headquarters within about 10-minute walk from each other in Tel Aviv, where they will celebrate or commiserate with their supporters when the results start coming in.

The Blue and White headquarters, in a pavilion at Tel Aviv’s fairground, was empty except for journalists just after 9 p.m., with party supporters expected to arrive later.

Israeli television pundits were doing hits for the camera as the international journalists were setting up their positions. The three main Israeli channels have all set up studios.

Gantz is expected to watch the televised release of exit polls at 10 p.m. at his home in Rosh Haayin, near Tel Aviv.

The main contenders have been putting out last-minute pleas before polling stations close at 10 p.m.

Netanyahu released a video online urging people to get out to vote. “We are in an emergency situation, you need to go out and vote for Likud,” he said. He has been trying to fan fears there could be a left-wing government. Netanyahu said that at 4 p.m. in Israel the proportion of left-wing voters was 60 per cent and the proportion of right-wing voters was 40 per cent.

Netanyahu’s main rival Benny Gantz, also said the situation was “dangerous” because the prime minister was getting his voters out to the polls. Gantz called it a “major challenge,” saying, “We mustn’t miss this opportunity.”

Ayman Odeh, one of the Arab members of parliament also called it an “emergency” and said there was a real danger that Arab parties would be completely wiped out of the parliament, or Knesset, amid indications that voter turnout would be at a historic low among Arabs.

Itamar Ben Gvir, a representative of the far-right Jewish Power party that is running in coalition with other parties, warned that turnout was low among Jewish settlers in the West Bank. “If the right-wing public does not want bulldozers to raze their homes, then it must run out to the polls,” he warned.


By 6 p.m. in Israel, turnout was at 52 per cent, according to Israel’s Central Elections Committee, dipping from 54.6 per cent in the 2015 election at the same time of day, amid indications that turnout among Israel’s minority Arab population could drop to a historic low.

“We are doing what we can but it’s looking bad,” said Dror Sadot, a spokeswoman for the Arab Knesset member Ayman Odeh.

She said internal assessments were pointing to an Arab turnout of about half that of Israel’s Jewish population.

Israeli Arabs make up around 20 per cent of the Israeli population and turned out in record numbers in 2015. But this year voters have expressed frustration about a split in the main Arab slate. Meantime, moves by Netanyahu’s government that were perceived as anti-Arab, such as the adoption of the controversial Nation State law last year, have bolstered calls for a boycott.