The latest exit polls on Tuesday night showed Netanyahu's Likud leading over Gantz's Kahol Lavan by a slight edge. But after conflicting results emerged from the polls, for now it is clear that the pollsters are the main losers of election night as they failed once again to deliver Israelis from their suspense.
Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid were quick to pounce on the fact that three out of four exit polls gave their Kahol Lavan party more seats than Likud and claimed victory, bidding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu farewell.
They conveniently ignored the fact that three out of the four same exit polls have the right-wing/religious bloc with a majority and only one (Channel 12) has the two blocs the same size (60 seats each). Netanyahu was actually more accurate in his statement when he said that “the right-wing bloc has won.”
The results so far aren’t great for him, but they are not a disaster either. He still has a good chance of forming his fifth government. Exit polls have traditionally favored Likud’s rivals, so why should it be different in 2019?
We will now have to wait — perhaps a couple more days — until the very last vote of every Israeli soldier, prisoner, diplomat and sailor has been counted.
To be fair to the pollsters, this was always going to be a nightmare for them. With two large parties running neck-and-neck and a dozen small parties, most of whom are hovering close to the electoral threshold, we probably could not have expected anything more definite after such a stormy and toxic election campaign.
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So what have we learned from the exit polls? One thing seems certain: Despite his inexperience, a haphazard campaign, the scandals and smears and stuttering in interviews, Gantz has answered a desire among a sizable proportion of the Israeli public for something different, for a change from Netanyahu.
We also learned that, among another nearly equally large part of Israeli society, nothing anyone says about Netanyahu, no allegation of corruption, no excess of dog-whistling — no matter what, they will continue believing he is the best leader Israel has ever had or ever will have.
But nearly half of Israelis still remain unconvinced by either Netanyahu or Gantz. This is the eighth Israeli election in which no party has received a third of the vote. The last leader to achieve over 40 Knesset seats was Yitzhak Rabin in 1992.
Israel remains a deeply fractured society, under Netanyahu or Gantz. However the election ends, whoever is the next prime minister, that isn’t about to change.
The intimidation of Israeli-Arab voters by Likud, which distributed 1,200 hidden cameras and recording devices among activists, was a dirty move on the scale of Netanyahu’s “Arabs voting in droves” video from 2015. In a sense it was worse, because in 2015 Netanyahu had acted to motivate wavering Likudniks and other right-wingers to go to the polls.
In this election he tried to suppress the Arab vote by delegitimizing it and making many Arab voters fear using their democratic mandate. Just for that, he deserves to lose.