JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's main challenger in the election, center-centrist leader Benny Gantz, said Wednesday it had emerged from the exit polls that the Israeli leader had been defeated, but only the official results would be give information about it.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands next to his wife, Sara, and beckons supporters of his Likud party center following the announcement of resignations during the Israeli parliamentary elections in Tel Aviv on September 18, 2019. REUTERS / Ronen Zvulun
] Gantz, a former general, was on the brink of final victory. But he radiated confidence and told a rally of his Blue-White party that it looked like we had accomplished our mission, and he promised to work toward the formation of a national unity government.
Netanyahu, he said, apparently "did not fulfill his mission" to win a fifth term in an election campaign following an ambiguous national vote in April. "We will wait for the actual results," said Gantz.
The Prime Minister, head of the right-wing Likud and Israel's longest-serving leader, was to hold a "short but important" speech at his polling station at around 3 am (0000 GMT).
Revised polls, a few hours after the end of the polls, by Israeli broadcasters gave Likud 30 to 33 of the 120 seats of parliament, a slight decline from previous predictions, compared to 32 to 34 for blue and white.
Both did not seem to have enough support for a governing coalition of 61 legislators, and Netanyahu's allied rival, former Defense Secretary Avigdor Lieberman, appeared as the likely kingmaker as chairman of the far-right Yisrael Beitenu party.
"Netanyahu has lost, but Gantz has not won," said Udi Segal, a well-known Israeli television news channel.
The revised polls showed that without Yisrael Beitenu's planned eight to nine seats could stand a stalemate: Likud would have the support of only up to 55 legislators versus 57 in the previous exit polls for a right-wing coalition. Blue and White could not gain more than 59 members for a center-left government.
"We have only one option – a national, liberal, broad government made up of Israel Beitenu, Likud, and Blue and White," said Lieberman, whose planned balance was twice the result in April.
Building a coalition could be complicated: Lieberman has announced that he will not join an alliance that included ultra-Orthodox parties – Netanyahu's traditional partners.
Gantz has ruled out participation in a government with Netanyahu if the Israeli leader is charged with threatening allegations of corruption.
Netanyahu (69), known by his followers as "King Bibi," had already been struck after his April election by his failure to form a government.
Threatening allegations of corruption – he has denied any wrongdoing – have also neglected Netanyahu's apparent invincibility, which lasted ten years in a row as Prime Minister and was marked by a sharp security focus that appealed to voters.
"Unless there is a miraculous turnaround between the original election results and the actual results, Netanyahu magic is broken," wrote Anshel Pfeffer, author of a Netanyahu biography, in the left-leaning Haaretz daily.
Lieberman turned to the followers after the exit polls and urged President Reuven Rivlin to invite Netanyahu and Gantz on Friday, before the final results are available to discuss the formation of a national unity government.
The campaigns of the two main parties showed little difference in many important issues: the regional fight against Iran, the Palestinian conflict, relations with the United States and the economy.
An end to the Netanyahu era would probably not result in a major policy change in hotly controversial issues of the five-year-old collapse of the peace process with the Palestinians.
GRAPHIC: Netanyahu's Annexation Plans – here
Netanyahu has announced his intention to annex the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank, where the Palestinians seek statehood.
But Blue and White has also announced its intention to strengthen the Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank, with the Jordan Valley representing Israel's "eastern security frontier".
As in the elections five months ago, Netanyahu's opponents, including Gantz, focused on bribery and fraud charges against the prime minister in three corruption cases.
Netanyahu is expected to be tried in court in October to protest the charges.
An electoral loss could make him more punishable without the protective shield of parliamentary immunity promised by his political allies to ask for him. There is no certainty that they would assist a weakened leader without an obvious public mandate in a coalition building.
Netanyahu portrays 60-year-old Gantz as inexperienced and unable to gain the respect of world leaders such as US President Donald Trump.
Prior to the recent elections, Trump took Netanyahu with him, recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which he had conquered from Syria in the Middle East in 1967. This time, the White House seems to be more concerned with Iran.
The Trump government is soon planning to publish an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that could turn out to be dead: The Palestinians have rejected it in advance as biased. Netanyahu's open door in Washington and other capitals of the world, on a flammable time on Israel's borders with Syria, Gaza and Lebanon, remains a major national attraction.
In the final hours of the election campaign, Netanyahu urged voters to support him in averting what he called the "catastrophe" of a left-wing government.
His hoarse voice brought the experienced leader to the streets and into the social media to call for voters to extend his unbroken decade in Jerusalem at a location with a megaphone at Jerusalem's bus terminal Power.
In Gaza, the Palestinians were awaiting the voting results.
"This choice affects many things in our lives," said Mohamad Abdul Hay Hasaneen, a caretaker in Khan Younis Town. "There may be limited escalations after the elections, but I do not think that will lead to a full war."
Reporting by Jeffrey Heller, Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell, and Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem and Akram El-Satarri in Gaza; Edited by Mark Heinrich and Peter Cooney; [email protected]; +97226322202