A near-complete ballot count on Tuesday cemented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s edge in the election a day earlier but left him seemingly short of the parliamentary majority he needs to govern.
Netanyahu, who at 70 is Israel’s longest-serving leader, swiftly turned his attention to building a working coalition and preparing to fight criminal corruption charges he faces in a trial due to begin in two weeks.
The prime minister hopes that staying in office will give him more tools in his legal battle, as well as enable him to push ahead with a hard-line nationalist agenda bolstered by the Trump administration’s Mideast plan.
With more than 93% of the votes counted, Netanyahu’s Likud Party had a solid lead over that of his main rival, the Blue and White party led by former army chief Benny Gantz. But the bloc made up of Netanyahu’s Likud and religious and right-wing allies appeared to have fallen two seats short of a 61-seat majority in the Knesset, or parliament.
Final results were expected as soon as Wednesday. Among the last votes being counted were those cast by Israeli soldiers.
Also being counted were about 4,000 votes cast by people under home quarantine following potential coronavirus exposure. Those doing the tallying — clad in full protective gear, working inside a sterilized tent — included members of the country’s Central Election Committee, who stepped in when some poll workers balked at handling the ballots.
For now, the prime minister and his allies were concentrating on a bid to peel away a few defectors from opposing parties.
Despite the continuing uncertainty as to whether he can clinch a majority, Netanyahu presided over a raucous celebratory rally early Tuesday.
“This is a victory against all odds — we stood against powerful forces,” he told a cheering crowd at his party headquarters. “They already eulogized us. Our opponents said the Netanyahu era is over.”
The prime minister assured backers he would move ahead with efforts to annex large parts of the West Bank, a move that Palestinians say would doom their aspirations for statehood.
Likud said the prime minister had met with leaders of religious and nationalist parties and received pledges of support. Likud is still floating the idea of teaming up with Blue and White, a coalition that would have a large parliamentary majority — but Gantz has ruled out an alliance while Netanyahu faces criminal charges.
The tallies could still change, but Likud was on track to secure 35 or 36 parliamentary seats to 32 for Gantz’s Blue and White. Overall, the prime minister’s party and its allies looked set to secure 59 seats, to 54 for Gantz’s center-left bloc.
Despite the discouraging results, the 60-year-old retired general has not yet conceded defeat. Gantz said Tuesday that he and his supporters would await the final count and do “everything that the results and the law allow” to bring about a change of national leadership.
As is often the case in Israel’s political system, smaller parties can wield outsize influence as kingmakers. One of those is the secular nationalist party of ex-Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, which had a tentative haul of seven seats. Lieberman hasn’t said which bloc he’d be ready to join.
This was Israel’s third national election in less than a year, and if Netanyahu cannot patch together a working majority, the country could be headed for an unprecedented fourth vote. And his legal woes could trigger a constitutional crisis, with court challenges to his standing as he attempts to form a government.
After a national vote, Israel’s president gives one party leader the first shot at trying to assemble a majority. Usually it’s the head of the largest party, which in this case is Likud.
Netanyahu has a March 17 court date to face charges of bribe-taking, fraud and breach of trust. He denies any wrongdoing.
Legal challenges swiftly emerged to try to prevent the prime minister, as a suspect in three criminal cases, from being allowed to try to form a government. A nonprofit group called the Movement for Quality Government in Israel filed a petition to that effect with the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
But Netanyahu has turned the legal proceedings against him into a rallying cry, calling the investigation a witch hunt and denouncing investigators. At his postelection celebration, supporters shouted slogans decrying the attorney general who indicted him.
Special correspondent Tarnopolsky reported from Jerusalem and staff writer King from Washington.