SUPPORT for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has plummeted amid a surprise surge in popularity for centre-left parties, leaving the country’s right-wing bloc with only the slimmest of margins in the next parliament, exit polls indicate.
Right-wing religious and pro-settler parties are still expected to form the largest bloc with 61 seats, while the centre-left is expected to win 59 in the 120-seat Knesset.
Support for Israeli PM plummets
Support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyah falls amid a surprise surge in popularity for centre-left parties.
Mr Netanyahu’s Likud Beiteinu list won just 31 seats – well down from the 45 seats the joint ticket was expected to win when Likud’s merger with former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party was announced in October. Mr Lieberman resigned last month to fight fraud and breach of trust charges.
In an unexpectedly strong performance, the centrist party of former television presenter Yair Lapid – Yesh Atid (There is a Future) – won 19 seats, the Labor Party won 17 seats and Naftali Bennett’s far-right Jewish Home took 12, exit polls indicated.
The religious Shas party won 12 seats, the left-wing Meretz won seven, as did former foreign minister Tzipi Livni’s centrist HaTnua party.
In a Facebook message to his supporters, Mr Netanyahu wrote: “According to the poll results it is clear that the citizens of Israel have decided that they want me to continue in my position as Prime Minister, and for me to form as broad a coalition as possible.”
But Meir Sheetrit – re-elected as a member of Ms Livni’s HaTnua party – was less charitable about Mr Netanyahu’s position.
“This is a test for Mr Netanyahu to decide whether he is a leader or a politician,” Mr Sheetrit said. “He can make history or be history.
Israeli party leaders vote in elections
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other politicians cast their ballots in the general election.
“He can establish a large coalition that includes the three centrist parties . . . or if he goes with the right-wing parties only it will be a very narrow government that will be paralysed.”
Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich said the election results could spell the end of the Netanyahu coalition.
“I will do all I can, and have already begun this evening, to form a coalition on an economic-social basis that will also push the peace process forward,” she said in a statement on her Facebook page.
“There is an opportunity here that I will not let be missed, to liberate the Israeli citizens from the Netanyahu coalition’s abuse, and these talks must be held seriously and discreetly, for the fate of Israeli society depends on it.”
This is a test for Mr Netanyahu . . . he can make history or be history.
One of Yesh Atid’s newly-elected MPs, the rabbi Dov Lipman, said the result was a clear statement that “the people of Israel want to see a different direction . . . they want to get the country back on track”.
The voters had placed issues of equality, housing reform, reform of the electoral system and national service high on the next government’s agenda, he said.
“There is tremendous optimism and tremendous hope that the country . . . is going to be set on a much better course,” Rabbi Lipman said.
Mr Netanyahu was in a very weak position because of the “licking” his party received in the election, and would experience great difficulties in forming a coalition, predicted Yehuda Ben-Meir from the Institute for National Strategic Studies.
“His party lost anywhere from nine to 11 seats . . . and Yair Lapid has a good chance of getting 20 seats,” Dr Ben-Meir said.
A move to the right in the Israeli electorate predicted by opinion polls in the lead-up to the election had not played out in the polling booth, he said.
“There was no shift to the right – if anything there was a slight shift to the centre.”
Mr Lapid’s politics placed him firmly in the centre, and his involvement in Netanyahu’s coalition would have a moderating effect, Dr Ben-Meir said.
Mr Netanyahu phoned Mr Lapid and congratulated him on his success, reportedly telling him: “We have great things to do together.”
Election officials reported voter turnout was 66 per cent, slightly up on 2009’s 65.2 per cent. Analyst Hanan Crystal said the Arab voter turnout was an unexpected 60 per cent, around 10 per cent higher than at the last election.
As the day progressed, rumours of panic in the Likud camp grew louder and just two hours before polling closed, Mr Netanyahu told his supporters: “The Likud government is in danger, go vote for us for the sake of the country's future.”
The United Torah Judaism list won six seats, the leftist Hadash party won four, and the Arab Raam-Taal and Balad parties won three and two seats respectively.
The Kadima party – which won the largest number of seats in the 2009 election with 28 – did not make it across the two per cent threshold and will not win a single seat in this parliament.
Labor candidate Avishay Braverman, who will take his seat in the next Knesset, said while it is likely Mr Netanyahu will be the next prime minister, he will face major problems.
“The policies of Netanyahu got rejected by the public . . . the public doesn’t want Netanyahu . . . and he is facing more and more international isolation,” Professor Braverman said.
“We are close to [being able to form] a centre-left bloc with the Arabs – let’s see tomorrow morning.”
There may be another election in the next year or two that would produce a more decisive result, he said.
More than 5.65 million Israelis – including 800,000 Arab citizens – are eligible to vote in this election.
An exit poll for Israel's Channel 2 television gave the following breakdown for the 120 Knesset seats:
Likud Beiteinu - 31
Yesh Atid - 19
Labor - 17
Jewish Home - 12
Shas - 12
HaTnua - 7
Meretz - 7
United Torah Judaism - 6
Hadash - 4
Raam-Taal - 3
Balad - 2