Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Benny Gantz claimed victory for their parties in tightly contested elections to the 21st Knesset.
With about 95 percent of the votes counted, projections show Gantz’ Blue and White party and Netanyahu’s Likud tied with each capturing 35 seats in the Knesset.
However, 120 seats in the Knesset are up for grabs, and Netanyahu can likely count on the support of other right-wingers to form a coalition.
Both Netanyahu and Gantz have prematurely declared victory. Netanyahu claimed that the results show a “clear” victory for Likud and its allies, while Gantz put out a celebratory joint statement with running mate Yair Lapid.
“These elections have a clear winner and a clear loser,” he said. “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!”
Definitive results will not be available until Wednesday morning, and the path to power is still far from certain for both leaders. The Likud leader took almost two months to build a coalition after his party won 30 seats in the 2015 elections, and courted the support of four other right-leaning and Orthodox Jewish parties to secure the bare minimum of 61 seats.
This time around, Netanyahu has taken to courting the support of some of Israel’s most radical right-wing voices, including the Jewish Power Party, a group described as “racist” and bent on remaking Israel as a “theocracy.” Netanyahu also pressed the Jewish Home Party into merging with Jewish Power Party, a move likely intended to stop the fringe right from siphoning too many votes away from Likud.
Speaking to voters in Israel, RT’s Paula Slier said that among the public, Netanyahu’s 10-year tenure is the number one issue. “Most people say that this is simply enough,” Slier said, “and this has been the main slogan of Benny Gantz’ Blue and White party.”
Posters of Netanyahu shaking hands with US President Donald Trump went up across Israel’s cities in the runup to the election. Netanyahu also sought to parlay Trump’s recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights and recent formal designation of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization into votes.
However, that move may have fallen flat, and right-wingers may be hesitant to form a coalition with such a strong Trump ally, especially given that Trump has not yet unveiled his Israel-Palestine peace plan. The plan, Slier explained, will call for some concessions from Israel, and therefore might be a hard sell for Netanyahu to his coalition partners.
Netanyahu vowed days before the vote to annex parts of the Palestinian West Bank, a nod to these hardliners and a blow to Palestinian aspirations for an independent state. The Israeli leader also outright rejected the idea of a two-state solution, stating that a Palestinian state would “endanger our existence.” Gantz called his rival’s pre-election promise of the West Bank on a platter “irresponsible.”
Turnout among Israel’s Arab population was, perhaps unsurprisingly, low. Some of those who did show up found themselves recorded on hidden cameras by Likud activists at election stations in Arab-majority towns.