Netanyahu claims victory as exit polls predict 60 seats for the right
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                  Netanyahu claims victory as exit polls predict 60 seats for the right

                  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu celebrates in his Jerusalem office, after exit polls come out on March 3, 2020. (Twitter)

                  Netanyahu claims victory as exit polls predict 60 seats for the right

                  02.03.2020, Israel

                  As polls closed at 10 p.m. Monday after the third Knesset election within a year, three television exit polls predicted significant gains for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, putting it within a hair’s breadth of forming a governing coalition, with centrist rival Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party falling far below its performance in the past years’ two previous elections.

                  “A huge victory for Israel,” Netanyahu tweeted shortly after the polls came out.

                  According to the exit polls, the right-wing bloc — made up of Netanyahu’s Likud party, the religious right-wing Yamina, and the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism — will get 60 seats in the 120-member parliament. The center-left bloc, minus Yisrael Beytenu, is forecast to win 52-54 seats.

                  Likud was predicted to get between 36 and 37 seats in the three polls, making it the biggest party and overtaking Blue and White, which was predicted to fall below Likud in all three exit polls, with 32-33 seats.

                  Rumors had been swirling in the hours leading up to the exit polls that Blue and White was poised to suffer a stinging defeat. They were apparently based on leaks from early exit poll results, as well as from officials in various parties.

                  Blue and White sources earlier told The Times of Israel that the turnout in key party strongholds had not been good enough and that Netanyahu looked set to win by a number of seats, but not “necessarily enough to form a government.”

                  “They just didn’t” get out the vote, one party official had said of Tel Aviv residents, offering an early post-mortem.

                  After the two inconclusive elections last year in April and September, the dramatic exit polls predict that if Netanyahu manages to pull a single opposition MK over to his side, he will reach the necessary 61-seat majority, ending the political crisis.

                  The vote has largely been seen as a referendum on Netanyahu, who will go on trial on corruption charges, including bribery, on March 17. If Netanyahu is tasked with forming the next coalition, the High Court of Justice will likely have to rule whether someone facing criminal charges can do that. The law currently only says a prime minister must step down if convicted with all appeals exhausted — a process that will take at least three or four years — but a previous ruling by Israel’s top court has prevented ministers from serving if they are facing a criminal indictment, and it could deliver another such precedent.

                  Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, which has long urged a unity government with Likud and Blue and White and refused to commit to backing either side, was projected to get between six and eight seats, potentially leaving him in the kingmaker role if no opposition lawmakers defect.

                  The Channel 12 exit poll predicted 37 seats for Likud, 33 for Blue and White, 14 for the Joint List, 9 for Shas, seven each for United Torah Judaism (UTJ), Yamina and Labor-Gesher-Meretz, and six for Yisrael Beytenu. The right-wing religious bloc supporting Netanyahu got 60 while the center-left bloc, minus Yisrael Beytenu, got 54.

                  According to the Channel 13 exit poll, Likud got 37 to Blue and White’s 32, with Joint List at 14, Shas at nine, Yisrael Beytenu and UTJ at eight, and Yamina and Labor-Gesher-Meretz at six. The right-wing religious bloc also got 60 while the rival center-left bloc had 52.

                  The Kan exit poll was not very different. Likud had 36, Blue and White 33, Joint List 15, Shas nine, UTJ eight, Yamina seven, and Labor-Gesher-Meretz and Yisrael Beytenu six each. Netanyahu’s bloc was seen winning 60 seats with the center-left bloc at 54.

                  The far-right Otzma Yehudit party, as expected, failed to pass the 3.25 percent electoral threshold in all of the exit polls, after its leader Itamar Ben-Gvir resisted immense pressure by Netanyahu to quit the race.

                  Voters had streamed to the polls in higher numbers than have been seen in years, smashing worries about voter fatigue and coronavirus fears. The Central Elections Committee said that 65.5 percent of registered voters had cast their ballots by 8 p.m. — the highest figure for the hour since 1999.

                  The total turnout in the September elections was 69.4% and in the April vote, 67.9%. The total turnout figures for Monday’s vote were due later Monday night.

                  Exit polls have proven very inaccurate in the recent past. While they managed to reasonably predict the actual outcome of the previous election in September, the three surveys diverged wildly in April, as well as in the 2015 election.

                  The final official results are only due on March 10, giving way to weeks or even months of coalition wrangling.

                  The decision regarding who will be the next prime minister ultimately lies with President Reuven Rivlin, who will meet with the leaders of all the parties that cleared the electoral threshold, hear who each of them recommends as prime minister, and determine which candidate has the best chance of forming a coalition of at least 61 out of the 120 elected Knesset members.

                  Israel has never had a single-party government, and the next coalition, like the last one, seems certain to be a product of tense negotiations among about half a dozen parties that may take days or weeks.

                  In addition to the normal polling stations, 16 specially equipped voting booths were opened for the 5,630 voters who were under home quarantine as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus in Israel. By the time those polling stations closed at 6:45 p.m., 4,076 of those people had cast their ballots — more than 72%.

                  By MICHAEL BACHNER

                  The Times of Israel