In an apparent setback for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, exit polls showed the longtime Israeli leader falling short of securing a parliamentary majority with his hard-line allies in Tuesday’s election.
The results posted by Israel’s three major TV stations indicated his political future could be in doubt.
The three stations all showed challenger Benny Gantz’s centrist Kahol Lavan party slightly ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud party. However, neither party controls a majority in the 120-seat parliament without the support of Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the midsize Yisrael Beitenu party.
After any Knesset election in Israel, following consultations with all political parties that won parliamentary seats the president gauges which legislator stands the best chance of forming a government.
Both Netanyahu and Gantz hope to be tapped after Tuesday's election, but a photo finish now complicates the picture.
Read Anshel Pfeffer's definitive profile of Gantz
A "national unity" government could avoid or resolve a stalemate if a Likud-led right-wing coalition or a Kahol Lavan-led center-left alliance prove impossible.
Gantz has said his party would not join a government with Netanyahu in it, citing the prime minister's legal troubles (he faces three corruption indictments pending a hearing).
If a partnership with Gantz is the only way to stay off the backbenches, prominent Likud members could try to topple Netanyahu as party leader, some political analysts have said.
"His low-key style and relative ineloquence are for many a modest man's refreshing antithesis to Bibi's perceived bluster and soloism. Gantz is seen as balanced, cautious and pragmatic," said Amotz Asa-El, a research fellow at Jerusalem's Shalom Hartman Institute.
Blue and white
Gantz launched his political career by joining forces with the right-wing Moshe Ya'alon, a former defense minister and the center-left former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, to form the new centrist Kahol Lavan party earlier this year.
Gantz and Lapid struck a rotation agreement, where the two leaders would trade places as prime minister after two years as premier.
The new alliance announced the first 20 names on the Kahol Lavan slate: Gantz, Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya'alon, Gabi Ashkenazi, Avi Nissenkorn, Meir Cohen, Miki Haimovich, Ofer Shelah, Yoaz Hendel, Orna Barbivai, Michael Biton, Chili Tropper, Yael German, Zvi Hauser, Orit Farkash-Hacohen, Karin Elharrar, Meirav Cohen, Yoel Razvozov, Asaf Zamir, Izhar Shay.
Allison Kaplan Sommer explained how Kahol Lavan’s lack of women at the top of the party highlighted Israeli politics' gender gap. Gantz has since vowed to move toward a 50-50 gender representation in his party and boasts of having the first ultra-Orthodox female lawmaker and female Druze lawmaker in his party.
On the issues
Gantz has called for pursuing peace with the Palestinians while maintaining Israel's security interests.
He has signaled he would make territorial concessions toward the Palestinians, but has also sidestepped the question of Palestinian statehood. His party is also running on a platform promising to impose term limits on the prime minister (Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term), invest more in education, allow public transportation on Shabbat and enact civil marriages.
Netanyahu's Likud party attacked Gantz, trying to brand him as mentally unstable and therefore unfit to serve in office.
Chemi Shalev explained how Gantz’s quintessential ‘Israeliness’ is his secret weapon against Netanyahu.
Likud officials decided on the move in late March, after a leaked recording of Gantz, arguing Netanyahu would like him dead, was aired on Channel 13 News. Likud has since sought to paint Gantz as "insane, a cuckoo, mentally unstable," according to a party source.
Gantz has attacked Netanyahu for his role in the submarines bribery scandal that his campaign clearly hoped would turn the tide against Netanyahu and his “Mr. Security” image. Netanyahu seized on the alleged hacking of Gantz’s cellphone prior to the first election to insinuate that Gantz is no less than a security risk prone to Iranian blackmail.
The campaign aside, Gantz’s biggest obstacle to becoming prime minister however, is finding enough seats in the Knesset to form a government. The right wing bloc favors Netanyahu and is currently larger, meaning the even if Gantz’s party wins more seats than Netanyahu’s Likud, Netanyahu may still end up prime minister.
Gantz insists that another government headed by Netanyahu would only last eight months until the prime minister is indicted in the corruption cases against him, the sources said. The attorney general has already moved to indict Netanyahu, pending a hearing.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this article
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