JERUSALEM (JTA) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party improved its chances of forming a government after it gained three more seats in parliament than Blue and White at the close of voting in Israel, exit polls showed.
Likud took 36 seats, according to exit polling by the Kan national broadcaster, compared to 33 for Blue and White.
The initial results show the right-wing bloc with some 60 votes to about 54 for the center and left. Sixty-one votes are needed to form a government coalition.
Channel 12 reported a slightly different result, giving 37 seats to Likud and 33 to Blue and White. Channel 13 had Blue and White with 32 and Likud with 37.
The results of an unprecedented third Israeli election in less than a year resulted in a slight improvement in Netanyahu’s chances of forming a viable government. All three channels show the right-wing bloc winning 60 seats overall, one seat shy of an outright majority of the 120-seat parliament, or Knesset, but an improvement from the 56 it won in the last round of elections in September.
In April elections, Likud and Blue and White tied with 35 seats each, but despite an overall edge for the right-wing bloc, Netanyahu was unable to form a majority coalition in the Knesset. Lawmakers eventually voted to dissolve the Knesset and send Israelis back to the polls in September.
In the second election in September, the centrist Blue and White won the most seats, with 33, but more lawmakers wanted Netanyahu to form the government, which he failed to do. Gantz was then given a mandate to form a government but ultimately failed, paving the way for Monday’s election.
Despite fears of poor turnout due to voter fatigue, turnout by Monday evening was registering as the highest since 1999.
Exit polls released at the close of voting at 10 p.m. local time showed the Joint List of mostly Arab parties finishing third with as many as 15 seats — up from 13 in September’s election. Both Likud and Blue and White said prior to the latest election they would not form a government with the Joint List.
Exit polls showed the Yisrael Beiteinu party of Avigdor Liberman earning 6 to 8 seats. Liberman has said he is unwilling to join a coalition with Likud as long as Netanyahu leads it, but also has disparaged Gantz.
Israeli exit polls often are not reliable, and swings of several seats when the final totals are published are not uncommon.
Paper ballots, each sealed in an envelope, will be counted throughout the night with more reliable results available by Tuesday morning.
Votes of soldiers, prisoners, hospital patients, poll workers, on-duty police officers and officials working overseas are not counted until the day after the election. Israel does not have absentee ballots for citizens who live abroad or who are out of the country on Election Day.
This year, another group of voters — those in quarantine at home due to possible exposure to the coronavirus — voted at special outdoor polls. Sixteen such polling places were set up throughout the country for the more than 5,600 eligible voters who are currently in isolation. The Elections Committee announced that some 4,076 quarantined voters cast ballots.
Among the smaller parties, the right-wing Yamina coalition led by Naftali Bennett garnered 6 to 7 seats, the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party had 9, and the haredi Orthodox United Torah Judaism received 7 to 8 seats. On the left, the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance picked up 6 to 7 seats.
The far-right Jewish Power party, or Otzma Yehudit, did not pass the 3.25 percent electoral threshold in any of the exit polls. The party had flirted for several days with leaving the race and throwing its support behind Likud, with its leaders saying that they were promised rewards for doing so. But in the end the party under notorious racist Itamar Ben-Gvir left the decision to the voters.
President Reuven Rivlin cast his ballot on Monday morning in Jerusalem. In a statement, he registered his disgust with the country holding a third election in less than a year.
“I’ve been participating in the elections in Israel almost since the country’s foundation. It was always a day we considered to be a celebration of Israeli democracy, and I must say that today I feel no sense of celebration. Only a sense of intense shame, before you, the citizens of Israel. We don’t deserve another horrible election campaign that deteriorates into such filth, like the one that ends today,” he said.
Election Day in Israel is a national holiday. To celebrate, some 150,000 Israelis and an estimated 10,000 tourists visited national parks and nature reserves.