The results also signaled a continued shift of the Israeli electorate to the right, which opposes concessions in peace talks with the Palestinians, evidenced by the strong display of an ultra-nationalist anti-Arab religious party.
Despite the inconclusive results, Netanyahu claimed that his Likud party had won a “big victory” with his fellow right-wing parties.
“It is clear that a clear majority of Israeli citizens are right-wing and want a strong and stable right-wing government that will protect Israel’s economy, Israel’s security and the Land of Israel. That’s what we’re going to do, ”he said on Facebook.
Exit polls have often been imprecise in the past, which means the final results, expected in the coming days, could further shift the balance of power. Even if the final results are in line with Tuesday’s exit polls, there is no guarantee that Netanyahu will succeed in building a coalition.
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said early exit polls indicated the elections were still very close.
Even though Netanyahu, who is in the middle of a corruption trial, may be able to build a tight government, he has not been granted permission “to revise the state’s constitutional constitution,” Plesner said.
“All three options are on the table: a government led by Netanyahu, a coalition for change that will leave Netanyahu in opposition, and a caretaker government leading to a fifth election,” he said.
Several right-wing parties have vowed never to sit in a government with Netanyahu. And Bennett, a former Netanyahu ally turned harsh critic, refused to support either side during the campaign.
Bennett shares Netanyahu’s tough nationalist ideology and seems more likely to eventually join the prime minister. But Bennett did not rule out associating with opponents of Netanyahu.
In a speech to his supporters, Bennett said he would promote right-wing values in the next government, but did not endorse Netanyahu and even took several veiled hits on the prime minister’s leadership style.
“Now is the time to heal,” he says. “What was is not what will be. “
Bennett has indicated he will lead a difficult negotiation with Netanyahu, demanding high-level ministries and possibly even a power-sharing deal that includes a stint as prime minister.
In addition, their partners would also include two ultra-Orthodox religious parties and the “Religious Zionists,” a party whose leaders are blatantly racist and homophobic. One of its leaders, Itamir Ben-Gvir, is a follower of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was labeled a terrorist group by the United States prior to Kahane’s assassination in New York in 1990.
Relying on the party could be deeply embarrassing for Netanyahu on the international stage, especially as he tries to woo the new Biden administration.
The election campaign was largely devoid of substance and was instead seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s divisive rule.
During the campaign, Netanyahu highlighted the success of Israel’s coronavirus vaccination campaign. He acted aggressively to get enough vaccines for Israel’s 9.3 million people, and in three months the country has vaccinated about 80% of its adult population. This allowed the government to open restaurants, shops and the airport just in time for election day.
He also tried to portray himself as a global statesman, highlighting the four diplomatic deals he made with Arab countries last year. These agreements were negotiated by his close ally, then President Donald Trump.
Opponents of Netanyahu claim the prime minister has messed up many aspects of the pandemic, especially by allowing his ultra-Orthodox allies to ignore lockdown rules and fuel a high infection rate for much of the year.
More than 6,000 Israelis have died from Covid-19 and the economy remains in bad shape with double-digit unemployment.
They also refer to Netanyahu’s corruption trial, claiming that a person indicted for serious crimes is unfit to rule the country. Netanyahu has been accused of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals he calls a witch-hunt by a hostile legal system and media.
Even Netanyahu’s reputation as a statesman has suffered a bit in recent days. The United Arab Emirates, the most important of the four Arab countries to establish official diplomatic relations with Israel, made it clear last week that they did not want to be used in connection with Netanyahu’s reelection bid after being forced to ‘cancel a visit to the countryside. The Biden administration has also kept its distance, which contrasts with the support it received in Trump’s last election.
Netanyahu’s Likud was to become the largest individual party, with just over 30 seats in the 120-seat parliament, followed by the centrist opposition party Yesh Atid, with some 17 seats.
The rest of the parliament would be divided among a dozen other small parties. These range from an Arab party to secular left-wing parties to two secular right-wing parties.
In total, Netanyahu and his allies are expected to control between 53 and 54 seats, while his opponents are expected to control 58 or 59, with Bennett controlling the rest.