Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, shrugging off his looming criminal trial, claimed victory after exit polls indicated he led his Likud Party to a first-place finish in Monday’s election — though he still faced obstacles to securing another term as the country’s leader.
Based on the projections, Likud and its allies fell slightly short of a majority in the 120-seat parliament, or Knesset, which Netanyahu would need to govern. Complicated coalition negotiations lie ahead.
And if Netanyahu does get the backing he needs, the country could be plunged into a constitutional crisis over whether a party leader facing felony corruption charges should be allowed to form a government.
The 70-year-old prime minister — a polarizing figure whose long political career has brought him adoring supporters as well as furious critics — sounded ebullient as he addressed cheering, flag-waving supporters at Likud headquarters. He called the projected outcome “the biggest victory of my life.”
By contrast, the mood was gloomy at the headquarters of his rival Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party. The ex-military chief, 60, did not concede defeat, but instead reminded his backers that the votes were not all counted yet — and that Netanyahu’s troubles are far from over.
“Criminal proceedings are only resolved in court,” said Gantz. “And two weeks from now, Benjamin Netanyahu will sit at the defendants’ table while facing charges in three grave offenses.”
The vote Monday follows a year of bitter political deadlock, in which Netanyahu and Gantz battled to inconclusive finishes in elections in April and September, and neither was able to cobble together a parliamentary majority.
If Netanyahu is again unable to form a coalition, the impasse would resume, and an unprecedented fourth election would be on the horizon.
Many Israelis were already dreading this third election in less than a year. But despite fears of voter fatigue after previous balloting, Monday’s vote was driven by robust turnout, particularly in strongholds of Netanyahu’s party.
Updated exit polls on Israel’s main television channels projected that Netanyahu’s conservative Likud, together with its religious-nationalist partners, would garner 59 seats — two short of a majority in the parliament.
The center-left bloc led by Gantz’s Blue and White party was projected to win 52 to 54 seats. But the exit polls sometimes diverge from the official result, which was not expected until Tuesday or Wednesday.
The exit polls gave Likud an edge over Blue and White, but differed as to how much of an advantage. Likud was projected to win between 36 and 37 seats, compared with 32 in the last vote, in September. Blue and White would take about the same number of seats, 32 or 33, as it did in the last vote, the polls indicated.
If Netanyahu’s edge holds, legal challenges are expected as to whether an election victor who is under indictment can be given the mandate to form a new government — something that the head of the leading vote-getting party is usually asked to do.
Analysts said the early projections seemed to bear out the prime minister’s reputation as a consummate political survivor.
“While we need to wait for the final results, there is no doubt that Prime Minister Netanyahu has won a significant political mandate from the Israeli people,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. “At the same time, the country is heading toward constitutional uncertainty.”
If he does secure a victory, Netanyahu appeared ready to use his power to try to undermine court proceedings against him. His allies have already said they will seek to pass a law that would preclude or freeze the prosecution of any sitting prime minister.
But legal experts are skeptical that such a measure, even if passed very quickly, could affect the course of a trial set to begin very soon, on March 17. Netanyahu, accused of bribe-taking, fraud and breach of trust, is the first Israeli prime minister to be indicted while in office.
Prosecutors who charged him in three separate criminal cases said Netanyahu accepted lavish gifts and used improper measures to try to influence media coverage. The prime minister has railed against what he calls a rigged judicial system, calling the charges against him a “witch hunt.”
The campaign was an ugly one, up to the end. On election day, Netanyahu’s social media accounts showed a misleadingly edited video, in which a mumbling Gantz appeared to tell a crowd to vote against his Blue and White party. In fact, Gantz called for support.
Netanyahu, as in past votes, received a preelection boost from President Trump, who in January unveiled a Mideast plan that grants most of Israel’s wishes but that Palestinians consider a death knell to their statehood hopes.
During his time in office, Trump has also handed the prime minister other significant concessions that reversed decades of U.S. policy, including moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, seized from Syria in 1967.
Palestinans were crestfallen at the projected outcome of Monday’s vote. “Settlement, annexation and apartheid have won the Israeli elections,” Saeb Erekat, a longtime Palestinian negotiator, wrote on Twitter.
As he has done before previous votes, Netanyahu pledged to move toward annexing Jewish settlements in the West Bank if he is able to form a government. Most of the outside world considers the settlements illegal under international law.
In the last vote, in September, Gantz’s Blue and White won one more parliamentary seat than Netanyahu, and the retired general hoped to match or surpass that performance. He sought to make the race a referendum on the prime minister’s character, likening him to a mobster.
The two main parties have similar views on security matters, including on Iran and dealings with the Palestinians. But Gantz has evinced more openness to negotiating Palestinian statehood, which is envisioned in the Trump plan, but with onerous obstacles.
Arab citizens of Israel make up about a fifth of the electorate, and in the last vote, the Arab parties formed a bloc called the Joint List, which performed strongly, garnering 13 parliamentary seats. Preelection polls suggested a surge of support for it, which appeared borne out by exit polls.
Throughout the campaign, Netanyahu sought to inflame his nationalist base by warning that Gantz, if victorious, would depend on the Arab parties for parliamentary support.
Because smaller parties can be kingmakers under Israel’s political system, the final showing by the secular ultranationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu will be closely watched.
The party is led by Avigdor Lieberman, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union and a former defense minister who is an erstwhile ally of Netanyahu, but the two had a falling-out and did not team up during the prime minister’s previous effort to form a government.
Like many countries around the world, Israel has seen cases of coronavirus — at least 10 confirmed so far, and more than 5,500 people under quarantine. To accommodate them, election officials set up special polling places in sterile tents.
Special correspondent Tarnopolsky reported from Tel Aviv and Times staff writer King from Washington.