Netanyahu and Gantz in dead heat, Israeli election exit polls show

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party finished one seat behind main challenger Blue and White in the first exit poll results released at the close of voting Tuesday.

Blue and White, whose head is former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Benny Gantz, took 37 seats in the upcoming Knesset, or parliament, according to the polling results from Israel’s Kan national broadcaster. Netanyahu’s Likud Party took 36 seats in that poll.

Other polls had the parties further apart, with Channel 12 reporting 37 for Blue and White and 33 for Likud. Channel 13 reported the two parties tied at 36.

The first results came after an Election Day full of exaggerated claims and accusations.

Israeli voters have learned to take the first exit poll results with a grain of salt. The poll totals have in recent elections been highly inaccurate, apparently because Israelis do not like to tell pollsters to which party they gave their vote. In 2015, the exit polls put the Likud Party and the Zionist Union in a dead heat. When the official votes were all tallied, Likud led by six seats.

The votes of soldiers, prisoners, hospital patients, poll workers, on-duty police officers and Israeli diplomats and officials working overseas, are not counted until the day after the election, which has led to some shifts in parties’ seat numbers in past elections. In the last election, those special ballots added up to over 280,000 votes, according to Haaretz.

Israel does not have absentee ballots for citizens who live abroad or who are out of the country on Election Day.

Both parties claimed victory.

“We won!” Gantz and Yair Lapid whose Yesh Atid party is part of Blue and White, said in a statement. ” The Israeli public has had their say! Thank you to the thousands of activists and over a million voters. These elections have a clear winner and a clear loser. Netanyahu promised 40 seats and lost. The President can see the picture and should call on the winner to form the next government. There is no other option!”

Netanyahu in a tweet focused on the total seats for the right-wing bloc. “The right-wing bloc led by Likud won a clear victory. I thank the citizens of Israel for your trust. I will start assembling a right-wing government with our natural partners this very evening,” he said.

Parties on the right wing garnered a total of 64 seats according to the Kan poll. Among the totals were 5 seats for the Union of Right-Wing parties, a coalition of the Jewish Home Party, Otzma Yehudit and the National Union Party; less than 4 seats  for the New Right Party of Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked; 7 seats for the Sephardic Orthodox Shas Party; 7 seats for the haredi United Torah Judaism; 5 seats for the Kulanu party of Moshe Kahlon and 4 seats for the Yisrael Beiteinu Party headed by former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.

The upstart Zehut Party, a quasi-libertarian and nationalist party headed by former Likud Party lawmaker Moshe Feiglin, which supports completely legalizing marijuana, did not appear to pass the electoral threshhold, despite predictions that it would be an important piece of a coalition.

Parties on the left wing garnered a total of 56 seats. Among the totals were 8 seats for the Labor Party; 5 seats for the Meretz Party; and 6 seats for the Arab coalition of Hadash-Ta’al. The Arab coalition of Ra’am-Balad did not appear to cross the electoral threshhold.

Following reports during the day of extremely low voter turnout among Arab voters, leaders of the Arab community and of the left-wing parties worked to get out the vote in Arab cities and towns.

It was also revealed that the Likud Party placed some 1,200 cameras in polling stations in Arab communities, citing a fear of election fraud. Arab leaders said it was meant to intimidate voters.

With no advertising permitted on Election Day, the parties took to social media and text messages to make their cases and get out the vote.

A ruling government coalition must have at least 61 seats, and preferably more if it wants to pass legislation on a regular basis. A party must win at least 3.25 percent of the total vote in order to pass the threshold to enter the Knesset. Following the results, President Reuven Rivlin will meet with the heads of each party to find out with which candidate they would choose to form a government, and charge that person with forming a government.

Netanyahu, in an effort to strip votes from some of the smaller parties, told right-wing supporters on Sunday that if they chose to vote for a smaller right-wing party that Likud might not have enough votes for Rivlin to realistically allow Netanyahu to form the next government. Whether that is true remains to be seen.

The prime minister also vowed to consider annexing the West Bank if elected in an effort to rally right-wing voters.

There were some 6.3 million eligible Israeli voters  and 10,000 polling stations across the country. The paper ballots each sealed in an envelope will be counted throughout the night with more concrete results available by Wednesday morning.