TEL AVIV — Polls have closed in Israel’s do-over election on Tuesday, an unprecedented second national vote in five months meant to break a season of paralyzing political deadlock.
Exit polls released at the end of voting showed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party tied or narrowly trailing its main rival, the Blue and White Party led by former Army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. Neither party looks close to an outright majority in the parliament, meaning Israelis could be in for months of political dealmaking before a governing coalition emerges.
Avigdor Liberman, a former defense minister and erstwhile ally of Netanyahu, appears to have won enough seats that he could play the role of kingmaker as the larger parties vy to form a governing coalition. Liberman, by refusing this spring to join a coalition with religious parties, had sent Israelis back to the polls.
Partial results could become available in the early morning hours of Wednesday. But if the race is very close, it could take many hours more to get final official results in a vote that has become a referendum on the future of Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving leader and a masterful political survivor.
An atmosphere of cautious optimism prevailed at Blue and White’s headquarters in the Tel Aviv port area, where supporters and party members were pleased by a number of initial exit polls that showed their faction narrowly ahead of Netanyahu. But the party faithful were wary of placing too much emphasis on these early figures.
“I’m very excited, and these are good results for us,” said David Berkovish, Blue and White’s brand strategist. “ But we need to be patient to see the real numbers.”
The mood was different across town at the Likud headquarters. About an hour after the exit polls were announced, the party’s staunchest supporters poured into a hall high in energy waving Likud banners — and even flags proclaiming Trump 2020 — while singing Likud jingles and dancing.
But the celebrations were marred by the initial results. “It doesn’t look good,” said Henry Kadosh, 73, from the city of Rishon Lezion. “I knew this would happen, because of the electoral system in Israel where small ideological parties dominate the larger parties.”
Liberman, speaking late on Tuesday, received an enthusiastic reception from supporters and urged the formation of a unity government that would include Likud, Blue and White and his own secular nationalist faction Yisrael Beteinu. But Liberman stopped short of announcing who he would endorse as prime minister.
“Both security and economy wise, this is an emergency,” Liberman said, speaking to supporters. “More than we can imagine.
Netanyahu and a boisterous field of rivals campaigned fiercely until the final hours of voting, crisscrossing a country that has become ever more divided along political, religious, ethnic and class lines.
At the center is Netanyahu, a campaign magician who managed to conjure the second vote after falling one Knesset seat short of forming a government after April’s election.
Amid the dizzying kaleidoscope of small parties and shifting alliances that make up Israel’s political universe, voters essentially chose between a right-wing religious coalition led by Netanyahu and a secular-centrist government led by Gantz.
The final polls before voting began showed the race in nearly a dead heat, and the leading candidates dashed between malls and polling stations, posting videos and pleading with voters to turn out.
Neither Netanyahu’s Likud or Gantz’s Blue and White is likely to get an outright majority of the 120 Knesset seats up for grabs, meaning that Tuesday’s vote will be followed by a period of deal making with other parties. A final outcome may not be clear for weeks.
This is the second election this year, and analysts were unsure how the unusual do-over campaign, largely unfolding over the summer holidays, would impact voter turnout, which typically nears 70 percent here. Public transport is free on election day, and many workers get the day off.
Voter turnout on Tuesday was measured at 69.4 percent, an increase of 1.5 percent from turnout in April’s 67.9 percent total.
After casting their own ballots, candidates raced around the country to whip up turnout, many of them adopting the Likud strategy of motivating their supporters by telling them electoral disaster was at hand. “We have the latest voter percentages and they are terrible,” Gantz shouted through a megaphone on the beach. Netanyahu climbed on a table at Jerusalem’s central bus station to urge passersby to vote and former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, now head of the ultra-nationalist Yamina Party, mounted a lifeguard stand and wheedled beachgoers to go to the polls via the public address system.
In the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion, polling stations were full by mid-morning.
Yaakov Elbaz, 71, said he intended to vote against Netanyahu.
“Our country is not in the best place right now,” Elbaz said. “On one side, we have a prime minister that is doing shady deals just to help himself, and on the other side we have the ultra-Orthodox who are trying to change the very nature of our society.”
Waiting to vote with a gaggle of small children surrounding him, a 37-year-voter said he was most concerned about security in the region. “Today is one of the most defining elections,” said Haim, who declined to give his last name. “The situation in Israel, in the Middle East and in the world is unstable, and we need to have a strong leader leading the country.”
But even as he entered the polling station, he said he was unsure whether he would vote for Netanyahu’s Likud party or Yamina, a union of ultraright-wing parties.
If Netanyahu emerges with enough support, he will be in a strong position to forge agreements with allies on the right and with leaders of Israeli’s influential ultrareligious factions. He may also find a way to use the shield of official immunity to fend off impending indictments in three criminal cases involving bribery, corruption and breach of trust.
If he loses votes, however, either to Gantz’s Blue and White party or to factions farther right than Likud, Israel could have a new prime minister for the first time in a decade. Netanyahu, who also held office for three years in the late 1990s, last June surpassed the country’s founder, David Ben Gurion, as the longest-serving prime minister.
“It is never safe to bet on Netanyahu’s end,” said Emmanuel Navon, a senior fellow at the Jerusalem-based Kohelet Policy Forum. “He has been prime minister for 13 years, and there is an endless list of predictions that this or that would bring him down, but, in the end, he always comes around.”
With Israelis wrestling with the choices before them, the dividing lines were sometimes running down the middle of family tables.
In Afula, a working-class city in northern Israel, Chaim Malka, 55, a house cleaner, was sitting down to a holiday lunch on the patio with his daughter, Odaya Gibli, and grandchildren, who had all driven in from Acre for the day.
“Only Bibi!” said Gibli, using Netanyahu’s nickname, when asked whom she supported. But her father — who said he had proudly supported Menachem Begin, the founder of the right-wing Likud party — scoffed.
“He takes money into his pocket,” Malkha said, describing Netanyahu. “For me, that’s called stealing. He hasn’t done anything. He has ruined peace.”
Elsewhere in Afula, a Likud stronghold, many were entirely uninterested in the corruption charges against Netanyahu.
Limor Tangi, 44, a special education high school teacher, said she supports the Shas party, an ultrareligious party, but that she still hopes Netanyahu wins reelection.
“No one can replace him when it comes to security,” she said. “I’m afraid of what happens if he’s gone.”
Tangi said she was alarmed by the prospect of secular parties diluting the religious nature of Israel. “There’s a lot of countries in the world, and this is the Jewish state. It has to stay this way.”
Election day began with many political observers unsure of the likely outcome. Surveys taken ahead of the weekend showed Netanyahu’s Likud running slightly ahead of Blue and White, but as with the results last time, neither the right nor left bloc will have enough votes to form a government.
Based on a system of proportional representation, each party receives a share of parliamentary seats according to the number of votes cast for it nationally. Throughout the country’s history, no party has ever won an outright majority, and it falls to the largely ceremonial president to task the leader with the most recommendations from other parties to forge a coalition of at least 61 seats.
Opinion polls taken Thursday indicate that Netanyahu and his likely allies on the religious right will reach only 57 to 59 seats. The center and left-wing parties will draw fewer than 45. A group of ideologically varied Arab parties could also draw significant votes, although those parties traditionally refuse to participate in governing coalitions.
That could leave, for the second time, the balance of power in the hands of a secular nationalist party led by Liberman. In April, Liberman, an immigrant born in the former Soviet Union, scuttled Netanyahu’s narrow election victory when he refused to join a coalition that included the ultra-Orthodox. Netanyahu was forced to call for a do-over vote, thrusting the secular-religious issues that have longed bubbled under the surface of Israeli society to the fore.
Liberman is predicted to draw up to 10 seats, double his number from last time. Once again, he could hold the seats that would enable Netanyahu to form right-religious government. But he promised during the campaign to seek a broad secular coalition led by either Blue and White or by a Likud with someone other than Netanyahu in charge.
“The Likud party may have to decide whether holding onto power is more important to holding onto Netanyahu,” said Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Also unknown was how many of Netanyahu’s supporters will go out for the second time to vote for him. In the days leading up to the Tuesday’s vote, he beseeched Likud voters not to take his victory for granted. In a blitz of media interviews over the weekend, and in a final round of short, snappy campaign videos, he warned of a left-wing victory, alleged fraud by Arab voters and complacency by his own party.
Voter turnout is generally high in Israel, although it varies by sector. The ultra-Orthodox community, about 10 percent of the population, has the highest numbers, while it is lower in the more mainstream, secular sectors of society. Among Israel’s Arab population, about 20 percent of the general electorate, the numbers are much lower, dropping to less than 50 percent in April.
Still, Netanyahu repeatedly warned his supporters of a building Arab wave. Tuesday, Arab voters said they did see the second election as far more important than previous votes.
“Arabs inside of Israel were divided in many groups, with different ideologies. But today is a very important day because we have one aim-which is bringing down Benjamin Netanyahu,” said Adnan Zoabi, 27, a teacher in Sulam, another Arab village in northern Israel. “With all of our differences, we have one aim today. God willing we’ll succeed.”
Not everyone was as ambitious.
Maymuna Muhajana, 28, a nurse in Umm-al-Fahm, one of Israel’s largest population centers, said she had decided to vote on Tuesday, after staying home in April, because she had become more conscious of the stakes. “I don’t think I’m going to change the system, but maybe I can get more rights out of it,” she said outside a polling place on Tuesday evening. Recent months had made her think that “even just small things” matter, she said.
Her husband, who declined to give his name, boycotted this vote, as he did every year. Nonetheless, he went to the voting station with his wife and child.
With this redo election coming so close after the previous one, and at the end of a hot, lazy summer vacation, all of the battling politicians across the spectrum were concerned that voter lethargy could have a significant impact on the results.
“Netanyahu is extremely competent at increasing the turnout of his political base. He did it in 2015 and in the first election in April; he is trying to do it now as well,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute.
Plesner said the results of the election could change dramatically depending on the voter turnout in certain sectors of Israeli society.
“If the Arab voters increase, it really could change the final outcome,” he said.
Amid the uncertainly, some voters said their greatest fear was that yet another election would be needed. Netanyahu, for his part, has refused to rule out a third vote. But in a video message Tuesday morning, President Reuven Rivlin, who could find himself the peacemaker in another stalemate scenario, said he would “do everything I can to get an elected government in Israel as soon as possible and to avoid another election campaign.”