Bibi and Sara wave bye-bye to corruption investigations

Israeli voters appear to have given Benjamin Netanyahu a fifth term as prime minister, media sources said tonight.

With about 90 percent of the vote counted, Israeli media said that Netanyahu's party had won 37 seats in the parliament to the opposition's 36. And overall rightwing parties won such a clear majority of the parliament, that Netanyahu has a clear path to forming the next governing coalition.

"[T]he left is left with hardly a prayer. It is an extraordinary triumph for Bibi [Netanyahu] and a crushing, deflating moment for his critics and opponents," writes Chemi Shalev of Haaretz.

The reality is that Israel is a "right-of-center country," and the world should recognize this, Rabbi Yotav Eliach said on i24 news.

"This is a night of a tremendous victory," Netanyahu said in an emotional speech at 2 a.m. "This is a great mission that guides me, day and night."

Original post:

Voting closed in Israel at 10 p.m. local time and the first exit polls place the race too close to call, yet both incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu and challenger Benny Gantz have declared victory. Netanyahu is seeking a historic fifth term heading a right-religious coalition, which could be capsized by the center-left coalition led by Gantz, a political newcomer and army officer.

Gantz led in the polls and gave a speech after midnight, declaring, "I am the next prime minister of Israel," and thanking Netanyahu for his service.

"They said I wouldn't go into politics, but I did," Gantz said. "They said we wouldn't win, yet we did."

Exit polling for i24 news put Gantz's Blue and White at 33 seats to 27 for Netanyahu's Likud. But Channel 13 later gave a far different read, 35 to 34 for Likud.

Tight results in Israel can be cumbersome as parties vie for up to 120 seats in Knesset that are up for grabs each election cycle. The head of the faction that wins the most seats is not guaranteed to lead the government, as it needs to form a governing coalition with a minimum of 61 seats backing them. In a close race, it is possible for one party to win a simple majority of votes but fail to form a ruling coalition, in which case the opposition will be granted an opportunity to form a government.

Even with the results still unclear, Netanyahu announced over social media a "definite victory" and claimed he will begin forming a ruling coalition overnight. In his victory speech, he said he had already secured the votes he needs.

Channel 13 reported an even split between Blue and White, but gave Likud's religious-right coalition 66 seats, meaning Netanyahu would keep his position as prime minister, which he has held for 10 years. Jonathan Tobin, editor of the Jewish News Syndicate, said on i24 that while the rise of Gantz's party in two months has been impressive, he has no path to becoming prime minister, there are not enough seats in the center and left. Owen Alterman of i24 said the opposition in Israel is "exuberant" tonight feeling that it has finally outpolled Netanyahu, but that the jubilation may well be fleeting.

Channel 2 also reported a 60-60 split between leading coalitions, but projected 37 seats for Blue and White and only 33 for Likud, the biggest upset yet. Reporting from campaign headquarters for Gantz, i24's Eylon Levy said when the results came in there were "gasps here in the room," adding a split government "would be a constitutional nightmare."

If one party fails to gain the 61 seat threshold, one possibility is that Israel could form a united government ruled by both major parties. That would require Netanyahu to share power, which analysts are citing as an unlikely outcome.

At 8 p.m. local time the Israel Elections Committee reported voter turnout at ​61.3 percent, slightly down from last year's 62.4 percent at that same time.

Ayman Odeh
© Twitter
Head of the Hadash party, Ayman Odeh, casts his ballot on Tuesday morning.
Exit polls showed turnout for Palestinian citizens of Israel was down significantly from the 2015 elections. That year Netanyahu's Likud won 30 seats and the short lived centrist camp, the Zionist Union, won 24 seats. A coalition of Arab parties and Hadash, a joint Arab-Jewish group won 13 seats for the Joint List, making party head Ayman Odeh the leader of Israel's third largest party, a first for a Palestinian-Arab parliamentarian.

This year the Joint List split into two lists, Hadash-Ta'al headed by Odeh and Ra'am-Balad. The combined tally for both parties were originally projected to slightly increase their total number of seats. In February the Times of Israel reported a Channel 13 poll predicted Hadash-Ta'al would cinch 10 seats and Ra'am-Balad four.

However in the lead up to the elections and indeed by Tuesday afternoon voter turnout among Palestinians was reportedly low. During the day Odeh urged Palestinians to turn out to vote, yet news broke that Likud had dispatched 1,200 cameras to monitor Arab polling places, including body cameras on Likud activists. While ballots were still being cast, Hadash filed a complaint with the the elections board over violations against filming voting and police removed cameras secretly lodged inside of polling stations.

By day's end Hadash-Ta'al said there was a 44 percent turnout for Palestinian citizens, reported i24, down from 2015's historic 64 percent, which slightly trailed the national average of 72 percent.

In the evening hours Hadash posted to social media an image of a campaign poster graffiti'ed with the words "death to Arabs."

In another astonishment, Channel 2 also predicted the New Right party helmed by Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked would not make it back into Knesset. The party failed to meet the three seat minimum to get into government.

Haaretz reported Bennett said from campaign headquarters, "Don't let your spirits fall," adding that he is waiting on the return of soldier ballots that come in a few days after election day. "We take care of the soldiers, and you'll see that the soldiers will take care of us."

In the last election the military voted slightly to the left of the country.

A coalition of right-wing parties, Jewish Home, Tkuma, and Otzma Yehudit, which formed the United Right, are expected to back Likud if Netanyahu attempts to form a government.

The voting block was marred with controversy in the lead up to the election because of Otzma Yehudit, an ideological heir of the banned Kach party, which had lobbied for violence against Arabs. The party's head, Michael Ben-Ari, was barred from running in March by Israel's high court due to incitement against Arabs and Palestinians.