Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party is on track to win the most seats in the country's fourth election in two years, but without any guarantee that it can form a governing majority.

An Orthodox Jewish man looks at a Blue and White party election campaign banner depicting its leader, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz, alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ahead of the March 23 ballot, in Bnei Brak, Israel on March 22, 2021.
An Orthodox Jewish man looks at a Blue and White party election campaign banner depicting its leader, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz, alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ahead of the March 23 ballot, in Bnei Brak, Israel on March 22, 2021. (Reuters)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed victory following Israel's fourth election in less than two years but the deeply divisive leader may again struggle to form a governing majority.

Netanyahu, Israel's longest serving premier, had hoped that Tuesday's vote would finally allow him to unite a right-wing coalition behind him, after three inconclusive elections since 2019.

He campaigned on a world-leading coronavirus vaccination effort that has already inoculated roughly half of Israel's roughly nine million people, a pace envied by much of the world.

Projections based on exit polls from Israel's three leading broadcasters, which could change, all show Netanyahu's right-wing Likud winning the most seats in Israel's 120-seat parliament, the Knesset.

If the projections reflect the final results expected later this week, Likud could win 30 or 31 seats.

Adding Likud's hawkish, religious allies, the pro-Netanyahu camp could control more than 50 seats.

But his only path to a viable right-wing coalition appears to rest on a deal with his estranged former protege Naftali Bennett, who has not ruled out joining a bloc opposed to the premier.

Netanyahu described Tuesday's projected results as a "huge win for the right" and his Likud party.

"I will reach out to all elected officials who share our principles. I will not exclude anyone," he told supporters.

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A referendum on Netanyahu

The election is widely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s divisive rule, and once again, opinion polls had forecast an extremely tight race.

The three-month campaign was largely devoid of substantive issues and focused heavily on Netanyahu’s personality and whether he should remain in office. In contrast to past elections where he faced off against a clear rival, this time a diverse array of parties is trying to topple him, having little in common beyond their shared animosity toward him.

“Vote, vote, vote, vote, vote,” Netanyahu said after casting his ballot in Jerusalem, his wife, Sara, at his side.

Netanyahu, 71, who even after 12 years in office remains a tireless campaigner, continued throughout the day. At one point, he marched along a Mediterranean beach imploring people over a megaphone to go vote.

“This is the moment of truth for the state of Israel,” said one of his challengers, opposition leader Yair Lapid, as he voted in Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu has emphasized Israel’s successful coronavirus vaccination campaign. He moved aggressively to secure enough vaccines for Israel’s 9.3 million people, and in three months the country has vaccinated some 80 percent of its adult population. That has enabled the government to open restaurants, stores and the airport just in time for election day.

He also has tried to portray himself as a global statesman, pointing to the four diplomatic accords he reached with Arab countries last year. Those agreements were brokered by his close ally, then-President Donald Trump.

Netanyahu’s opponents, including a trio of former aides who share his nationalistic ideology but object to what they say is his autocratic leadership style, see things far differently.

They say that Netanyahu bungled many aspects of the pandemic, particularly by allowing his ultra-Orthodox allies to ignore lockdown rules and fuel a high infection rate for much of the year. Over 6,000 Israelis have died from Covid-19, and the economy remains in weak shape with double-digit unemployment.

They also point to Netanyahu’s corruption trial, saying someone who is under indictment for serious crimes is not fit to lead the country. Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals that he dismisses as a witch hunt by a hostile media and legal system.

Opinion polls forecast a tight race, with a possibility of both Netanyahu and his opponents falling short of securing a parliamentary majority yet again. That could plunge the country into an unprecedented fifth consecutive election later this year.

Tuesday’s election was sparked by the disintegration of an emergency government formed last May between Netanyahu and his chief rival at the time. The alliance was plagued by infighting, and elections were forced after they failed to agree on a budget in December.

“It would be better if we didn’t have to vote, you know, four times in two years,” said Jerusalem voter Bruce Rosen. “It’s a little bit tiring.”

By 6 p.m. (1600 GMT), 51.5% of eligible voters had cast ballots, a drop of nearly 5 percentage points from the previous election a year ago, the Israeli election commission announced.

Netanyahu’s opponents have accused him of fomenting deadlock in hopes of bringing about a friendlier parliament that will grant him immunity from prosecution.

Netanyahu is hoping to form a government with his traditional religious and hard-line nationalist allies. These include a pair of ultra-Orthodox parties and a small religious party that includes openly racist and homophobic candidates.

This time, much will depend on the performance of a handful of small parties struggling to win the minimum 3.25 percent of the vote to enter the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament.

While Netanyahu’s Likud was expected to emerge as the largest single party, no party has ever won a 61-seat majority on its own. Both he and his rivals must win the support of smaller allied parties to form a majority coalition.

Recent polls have forecast that several parties were hovering near the electoral threshold. A failure by any one of them to enter the parliament would have a significant impact on the balance between Netanyahu and his opponents.

Another complicating factor was absentee balloting. Up to 15 percent of the electorate was expected to vote outside their home districts, a larger-than-usual number due to special accommodations for those with Covid-19 or in quarantine. The government set up special polling stations and even brought ballot boxes to hospital bedsides to allow people to vote safely.

Those votes are tallied separately in Jerusalem, meaning final results may not be known for days. Given the tight race, it could be difficult to predict the outcome before the final count is complete.

After the results come in, attention will turn to the country’s figurehead president, Reuven Rivlin.

He will hold a series of meetings with party leaders and then choose the one he believes has the best chance of forming a government as his prime minister-designate. That task is usually, but not always, given to the head of the largest party. That will set off weeks of horse-trading as the prime minister-designate tries to cobble together a government with promises of generous budgets and powerful ministries to his would-be partners.

Voting in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Rivlin said the deadlock has had a price.

“Four elections in two years erode public trust in the democratic process,” he said, even as he urged Israelis to vote again. “There is no other way.”

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Source: TRTWorld and agencies