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Netanyahu’s path to victory far from certain in Israel’s fourth election in two years

Exit polls following Israel’s fourth general election in under two years are pointing to another very close result, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comfortably on track to lead the largest party in parliament, but facing an anxious wait to see if his preferred coalition allies secure enough support to make building a new government straightforward.

In a moment of ritualized drama, and with no little fanfare, Israel’s main three TV networks published their exit poll projections within a minute of polling stations closing at 10 p.m. local time (4 p.m. ET). They showed Netanyahu’s Likud projected to secure between 31 and 32 seats, down from 36 in the last election, but still comfortably ahead of main opposition leader Yair Lapid, whose centrist Yesh Atid party is predicted to secure between 16 and 18 seats.

Digesting the projections, politicians and pundits on Israeli television are focusing on the potential pathway to a Netanyahu-led coalition of 61 seats or more. The Israeli leader is looking for strong performances from the two main religious parties representing the ultra-Orthodox communities — both say they will remain allied with Likud after the election. Exit poll projections give them a combined total of between 15 and 16 seats.

Netanyahu will also feel confident he has the support of the far-right Religious Zionism party. Exit polls suggest this grouping — which includes followers of extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose own political party was banned from the Knesset in the 1980s for being racist — is on track to cross the electoral threshold and win around seven seats.

Pundits are pointing out that if these numbers are borne out, and if Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina party, on track to win seven or eight seats, were added to this bloc, then a Netanyahu-led coalition could reach the minimum majority of 61.

But exit polls in Israel are not seen as 100% reliable and as results are counted, broadcasters tend to update their projections, which can significantly alter the outlook. Likud party activists told CNN they were happy with the results, but they know from previous elections that even if the exit pollsters are just one or two seats out with their predictions, Israel could quickly return to political deadlock.

This election was triggered in December when parliament failed to agree a budget, ending a seven-month power sharing arrangement between Netanyahu and his main rival in the three previous elections, Benny Gantz. The former army chief emerged from the unity agreement, signed during the first wave of rising coronavirus infections last April, bitterly disillusioned about his decision to join the government.

“I never believed Netanyahu, but I was willing to cooperate with him for the good of the country,” Gantz said after the government’s collapse, adding later: “I shook the hand of a serial promise-breaker. I shook his hand, because the State of Israel was at war [with the coronavirus], and I am, above all, a soldier. I was wrong.”

Exit polls suggest Gantz will end up paying a heavy political price with his Blue and White party projected to win just seven or eight seats. One year ago, when he ran together with Lapid, he led the party to 33 seats.

Opposition parties went into this election fractured and they leave it the same way. The center-left Labor party and the leftist Meretz look to have comfortably secured representation in the new parliament, along with Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, which ran on a strong secular platform opposed to Shabbat restrictions on shopping and public transport.

But right winger Gideon Saar, who left Netanyahu’s Likud to form his own New Hope party looks to have badly underperformed. When he announced his departure from Likud at the end of last year, opinion polls gave him nearly 20 seats. Exit polls project him winning just five or six seats. Unless there is a significant shift as results take shape, it is not immediately obvious how the opposition parties could cobble together a strong coalition.

One of the more striking aspects of this election campaign has been Netanyahu’s attempts to win support among Israel’s Arab voters. In previous campaigns, he has been accused of trying to suppress their vote; on election day in 2015, he even made a video claiming Arab voters were “moving to the polling stations in droves” — in order to motivate his Likud base to get out and vote.

This time, by contrast, he produced campaign material featuring voters declaring in Arabic their support for ‘Abu Yair,’ the father of Yair (adapting the Arabic paedonymic based on the name of Netanyahu’s eldest son), hailing his coronavirus vaccine achievements, as well as promising direct flights from Tel Aviv to Mecca for Israel’s Muslim pilgrims.

The Joint List, an alliance of three mainly Arab parties committed to ousting Netanyahu, looks set to win in the range of eight or nine seats. The United Arab List, which split from the Joint List in January, is not projected to cross the electoral threshold of 3.25%.

Final results could take a week to be certified. After that, the leaders of all parties that have won representation in the Knesset will visit President Reuven Rivlin and tell him who they support for Prime Minister. No later than April 7, the President will ask one of them to try to build a government, setting in train a period of coalition negotiations that could last up to six weeks.

Article Topic Follows: National-World

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