JERUSALEM–It will be a long night in Israel, where initial exit polls Tuesday evening indicated a close electoral victory for opposition head Benny Gantz, a former army chief of staff. But the prognosis for his chances to form a winning coalition block against right-wing parties led by the Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has held office for 10 years, and dominated Israeli politics for a generation.
Both candidates declared immediate victory, though Gantz’s declaration, issued jointly with his deputy, former finance minister Yair Lapid, had a more exuberant tone.
“We won! The Israeli public has had their say!” the pair exulted in a statement. “Thank you to the thousands of activists and over a million voters. These elections have a clear winner and a clear loser. Netanyahu promised 40 seats and lost. The President [Reuven Rivlin] can see the picture and should call on the winner to form the next government. There is no other option!”
A few minutes later, in a Hebrew-language tweet, Netanyahu declared victory on behalf of his political wing, not himself or his party:
“The right-wing bloc led by the Likud won a clear victory. I thank the citizens of Israel for their trust. I will begin forming a right-wing government with our natural partners tonight.”
Netanyahu’s position was weakened by news that he faces indictments for corruption, and, to all appearances, by a brutal campaign in which he attacked Gantz, without basis, for allying with Arabs, for supposedly celebrating the “martyrdom” of Islamist militants killed in fighting with Israel and allegedly concealing an a sex-tape putatively hacked by Iran.
While Netanyahu ran a mudslinging blitzkrieg against his Israeli opponents he basked in the extraordinary support of both Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump.
Putin helped to return a long-lost Israeli casualty of the 1982 Lebanon War in a public ceremony with Netanyahu in Moscow just days before the vote. And Trump over the last year has gone far to meet Netanyahu’s most hardline diplomatic demands: moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, closing the consulate there which handled Palestinian affairs, then announcing in recent days his support for Israel’s claim to sovereignty over the Golan Heights, while declaring the entire Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is a terrorist organization.
In truth, virtually all of Trump’s Middle East policy has been oriented toward, if not directed by, Netanyahu’s vision of the region, which often is coordinated with that of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (the suspected murderer of journalist Jamal Khashoggi).
In Israel on Tuesday night, the exit polls brought surprise figures showing a virtual dead heat between the two main political blocks in the raucous political arena. But figures are expected to shift as definitive results stream in overnight.Historically low turnout of under 70 percent appeared to be the one clear result of the bruising, incitement-filled campaign which was low on content or policy debates.
The mixed results–and potential loss for Netanyahu–was relayed in televised exit polls and at a massive rally planned for Tel Aviv, where Likud activists faced the unimaginable: the possible scenario of President Rivlin having to choose between two more or less equal voting blocks of 60 and 60.
In addition, a disengaged and disaffected Arab public, the brunt of constant attacks by Prime Minister Netanyahu, appeared reluctant to take part in the electoral process. Haaretz senior pollster Camil Fuchs, of Tel Aviv University, said that if the figures being reported from the Arab sector hold steady, historically low participation rates such could “completely change the Knesset map.”
Whichever man is chosen, the interim results indicate the Israeli populace may be thirsty for a change, and the country seems headed for a period of political instability.
Even if Netanyahu is called upon to form the next government, he is likely to face stiff opposition from within his own political camp when indicted late this summer. Netanyahu
If Gantz is chosen, the quiet general with no political experience may go down in history as a dragon-slayer.
While widely criticized for remaining a political cypher, the soft-spoken Gantz ran on two clear positions. He insisted that Netanyahu himself, with accusations of corruption trailing him, was the greatest danger facing Israel. This was the argument he used to explain the seemingly contradictory inclusion of right-wingers such as former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and left-leaning candidates such as Lapid. Gantz said it was a response to an “emergency”: Netanyahu.
Gantz also launched his campaign with the promise he’d change the controversial Nation-State Law, a measure Netanyahu claimed as his principal legislative achievement demoting Arabic from its status as an official language of the state and granting a special, elevated status to Jewish communities.
The law’s passage provoked the largest public protests Israel has seen in decades and prompted Rivlin to sign the measure in Arabic, an unprecedented act of protest by a sitting Israeli president.
Netanyahu, an experienced master of Israel’s parliamentary maneuvering, cannot be dismissed and may yet form Israel’s next government, but he will be a chastened giant, unlikely to escape the clutches of indictment and confronted by a robust, invigorated opposition in the Knesset.
Whatever results Israelis wake up to in the morning, King Bibi is no more.
At a Tel Aviv rally, Gantz, the old commander, thanked Netanyahu for his service and declared the dawning of a new day in Israel.