Benjamin Netanyahu appeared headed early Wednesday for another term as Israel’s prime minister, but a powerful electoral challenge from a political neophyte sharply dented his aura of invincibility as he battles expected corruption charges.
With 97% of the vote counted, official results of Tuesday’s nationwide vote pointed to a dead heat between Netanyahu’s Likud Party and its main rival, the centrist Blue and White alliance, led by former military Chief of Staff Benny Gantz.
But just as significant was the showing by rightist parties aligned with the prime minister. Those totals were projected to give Netanyahu the parliamentary majority that he, one of the most durable Israeli leaders ever, would need to form and head yet another government.
Both Netanyahu and Gantz claimed victory soon after the polls closed. But it was well after 2 a.m. when Netanyahu at last addressed supporters who cheered him on with the sobriquet “Bibi, King of Israel!”
“It’s a night of tremendous victory,” the prime minister declared — a display of characteristic bravado, because his triumph at that point was not assured.
Earlier in the evening, Gantz, at a rally of his own, administered perhaps the ultimate diss, one military man to another.
“We thank Benjamin Netanyahu for his service to the country,” the former chief of staff told a raucous crowd, signaling that he regarded the prime minister as a spent force.
Amid a nail-biting night of vote-counting, the scale of the rebuke delivered by Gantz preoccupied some observers. More complete official tallies were expected later Wednesday.
“Blue and White leader Benny Gantz’s strong performance against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday was the result more of Netanyahu overstaying his welcome than anything Gantz did or said,” said a commentary in the Jerusalem Post. “In these elections, it was not as if much of the country said ‘yes’ to Gantz as much as it said ‘no’ to Netanyahu.”
President Reuven Rivlin, whose post is largely symbolic, is tasked with picking the leader who will be asked to form a government. As the results trickled in, attention in the wee hours Wednesday quickly turned to prospects for coalition deal-making.
Shas, a party representing Sephardic Jews, was forecast to win seven seats in the parliament, or Knesset, and announced it would back Netanyahu for prime minister. But the centrist Kulanu party, led by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, initially refused to commit its four projected seats to him.
The mixed result gives a greater kingmaking role to smaller parties — though it appeared that some would not reach the vote threshold to be seated in the Knesset.
Still, it was clear that Netanyahu would have enough allies to form a ruling coalition and that Gantz would not.
Notably, Israel’s once-iconic Labor Party, which bestrode the first decades of Israeli statehood, plummeted into single digits in terms of parliamentary seats.
But Netanyahu’s seeming invincibility might have been the night’s biggest casualty.
“Gantz proves there is an alternative to Netanyahu,” Haaretz newspaper columnist and Netanyahu biographer Anshel Pfeffer wrote on Twitter as the votes were still being counted.
The race was shadowed by a corruption indictment hanging over Netanyahu, who may seek to use a victory to shield himself legally. The prime minister stands accused of improperly accepting expensive gifts, ordering government action aimed at hurting one newspaper in exchange for favorable coverage from another, and helping a telecommunications company get regulatory concessions.
The prime minister has denied any wrongdoing and denounced investigations as a witch hunt, but he is expected to be indicted this summer — which would be a first for a sitting Israeli prime minister.
If he manages to remain in office, the 69-year-old Netanyahu this summer would become the longest-serving prime minister since founding father David Ben-Gurion. This would be his fourth consecutive term and his fifth overall.
Netanyahu, whose image is mainly built around national security, made a last-ditch appeal to right-wing voters, pledging over the weekend to begin applying Israeli sovereignty to Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Such a move could upend decades of peace efforts and would be regarded as illegal by most of the international community.
The prime minister has also played up his close relationship with President Trump, plastering the country with giant billboards showing the two leaders together. And the Trump administration’s designation Monday of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization was seen by many as an election-eve gift to the premier — one that Netanyahu gloated over on Twitter, saying in a Hebrew-language tweet that the U.S. move came at his request.
Netanyahu also got a campaign boost from Washington last month when Trump announced the United States would recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau seized from Syria in 1967. That also flies in the face of a general international consensus, as did Trump’s move of the U.S. Embassy last year from Tel Aviv to disputed Jerusalem.
Israel’s voter turnout is normally robust, but fell below 70% in this contest, a drop blamed in part on voter disillusionment with a campaign that did not turn on substantive issues.
Election day is a national holiday in Israel, and families swarmed beaches, shopping malls and restaurants. About 6.3 million people were eligible to cast ballots for more than 40 parties.
The number of representatives each party sends to the 120-seat Knesset depends on its total share of the vote. A total of 61 seats is needed to form a ruling coalition.
Likud and the Blue and White party were poised to take 35 seats each.
Netanyahu’s camp sought to rally his backers with an election day video expressing fears that too many of his voters might sit out the balloting. But he was probably bolstered by a very low turnout among the country’s Arab sector, which generally opposes him.
For Palestinians, the campaign and the vote — whatever its final conclusion — was a stinging reminder that their statehood quest has been relegated to near irrelevancy under Netanyahu.
The Trump administration lent its backing to the prime minister as hopes faded for a two-state solution — a scenario that was once the bedrock of U.S. Mideast policy.
Special correspondent Tarnopolsky reported from Jerusalem and Times staff writer King from Washington.