Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared himself victorious in the 2019 general election Tuesday night, as updated exit polls and early results showed him with a clear path to forming a new government.
“I am very moved on this night,” he told exuberant supporters. “This is a night of an incredible, incredible victory.”
Though initial exit polls at 10 p.m. had shown Likud and Blue and White either even at 36 seats (Channel 13 and Kan) or with an advantage for Blue and White (37 to 33 on Channel 12), updated results accounting for the final hours of voting on both Channel 12 and 13 showed Likud leading 35 to 34.
And regardless of the horse race between the two major parties, the right-wing bloc was projected to win a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. The results mean Netanyahu will likely sweep back into power for an unprecedented fifth term, despite pending bribery and fraud indictments hanging over him.
As of 3:12 a.m. Wednesday, with over 2.7 million votes counted, Likud was leading Blue and White 27.5 percent (roughly 33 seats) to 26% (31 seats). Shas was running a distant third with 6% (7 seats), followed by UTJ with 5.2% (6 seats) and Yisrael Beytenu with 4.6% (6 seats). The actual number of seats will likely go up once all votes are tallied and votes of parties that did not cross the threshold are redistributed.
Final turnout in the vote was 67.9%, down from 2015’s final turnout of 71.8%.
Depending on the final tally and coalition negotiations, Netanyahu appeared slated to be able to form a coalition with some 63 to 65 seats, while the Blue and White led opposition would have 55 to 57 seats.
Netanyahu said the numbers indicated a “fantastic achievement, an enormous achievement, which is almost unfathomable.”
He applauded his supporters for securing his win in the face of a “biased media.”
He called the Likud outcome “almost unprecedented,” saying, “When did we receive so many seats? I don’t even remember.”
If Likud ends up with 33 seats or above, it would be the party’s best showing since 2003, when it won 38 seats under the leadership of Ariel Sharon.
Netanyahu said Israel, under his leadership, was strong, prosperous and “a good place to live.”
Even as he declared his win, Netanyahu also counseled patience until all the ballots were counted. “A long night, maybe a long day, is still ahead of us and we will wait for the final results,” he said.
Netanyahu said he was in contact with right-wing parties, “our natural partners… Nearly all of them have publicly declared that they will recommend that I form the next government.
“It will be a right-wing government. But I intend to be the prime minister of all of Israel, right and left, Jews and non-Jews alike.”
Hanging over Netanyahu is a likely indictment in three corruption cases, including one charge of bribery. Netanyahu has been rumored to be planning to condition, or tacitly link, entry to the post-election coalition he hopes to form on support for the so-called “French law,” which would shelter him from prosecution as long as he remains in office. Netanyahu has denied seeking such legislation.
Of right-wing parties projected to enter the Knesset, only Yisrael Beytenu and Kulanu said they would wait before deciding on whether to back Netanyahu, though Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon later indicated he was leaning toward supporting the prime minister.
Earlier Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz had also declared victory, after one major exit poll appeared to show his party in a stronger position.
Gantz said he would be the next prime minister of Israel and would “form a wide coalition that represents the whole of Israel.”
However, those claims seemed increasingly improbable as the night wore on.
Several key party leaders said they would recommend Netanyahu to lead the next government, including the heads of Ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism.
Meanwhile, in a surprise turn of events, Naftali Bennett and Ayalet Shaked’s New Right was hovering around the electoral threshold, while Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut party, which had been polling at 6-8 seats prior to the vote, was below the threshold.
Feiglin had been seen as a possible kingmaker, refusing to back Netanyahu despite his hard-right ideology.
Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher party was also not projected to pass, as had been predicted by the polls.
Over 10,000 polling stations closed at 10 p.m. Tuesday, after a heated campaign season reached its climax with a tense election day, in which almost all parties attempted to galvanize their base by claiming they were in dire straits due to low turnout among their voters.
The decision regarding who will be the next prime minister may ultimately lie with President Reuven Rivlin, who will meet with the leaders of all the parties that cleared the electoral threshold, hear who each of them recommends as prime minister, and determine which candidate has the best chance of forming a coalition of at least 61 out of the 120 elected Knesset members.
Israel has never had a single-party government, and the next coalition, like the last one, seems certain to be a product of tense negotiations among about half a dozen parties that may take days or weeks.
President Reuven Rivlin casts his ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem on April 9, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
By law, the final election results must be published within eight days of the vote, but a spokesman for the Central Elections Committee said the counting would be finished on Thursday afternoon. All the counting is done manually, following the closing of the polling stations.
Buoyed by a tight alliance with US President Donald Trump but clouded by a series of looming corruption indictments, Netanyahu has been seeking a fifth term in office that would make him Israel’s longest-serving leader, surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion. He has served consecutively for the past 10 years, and was also prime minister from 1996 to 1999.
Netanyahu faced his stiffest challenge in a decade from Gantz, a craggy former military chief making his first foray into politics, who united his fledgling faction with Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem party to create Blue and White.
In the campaign’s final days, Netanyahu played to his base and veered to the right, vowing to annex Jewish West Bank settlements if reelected and embarking on a media blitz in which he portrayed himself as the underdog and frantically warned that “the right-wing government is in danger.”
Michael Bachner and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.