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Polls close in Israel's razor-tight election as Netanyahu seeks to keep power

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Image: Israeli election day
Leader of the Israeli Blue and White party and former IDF chief of staff, Benny Gantz, from right, and his wife Revital Gantz, leave a polling station after casting their votes during the Israeli parliamentary elections in Rosh Haayin, Israel. -
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Ilia Yefimovich
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TEL AVIV — Polls closed in Israel's razor-tight election Tuesday as embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to maintain his decadelong hold on power.The prime minister's right-wing Likud party has been polling neck-and-neck with the centrist Blue and White party, led by former army chief of staff Benny Gantz.Facing the end of his political career, and potentially even jail, Netanyahu pulled out all the stops throughout the campaign."War to the last minute," he said on Twitter Tuesday in a late attempt to get supporters to the polls. "We will lose if you do not wake up."As voting closed it remained unclear whether Netanyahu's efforts had paid off.Exit polls appeared to indicate that the results were too close to call. Two of the country's main broadcasters forecast Netanyahu may have fallen short, but all suggested a predictably tight result.The polls can also be unreliable. Official final counts won't be available for days, but a picture of the result should become clear on Wednesday.

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The unprecedented do-over election follows an inconclusive vote in April. Unable to form a governing coalition, Netanyahu instead triggered a snap election.Turnout was nonetheless high throughout the country.As of 8 p.m. local time (1 p.m. ET) Israel's central election committee said 63.7 percent of voters had cast their ballots — a slight improvement from the same time in April.

A child accompanies an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man as he casts his ballot at a voting station in the city of Bnei Brak during the Israeli parliamentary election on Sept. 17, 2019.
A child accompanies an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man as he casts his ballot at a voting station in the city of Bnei Brak during the Israeli parliamentary election on Sept. 17, 2019.Menahem Kahana

Whatever the outcome, both parties could again struggle to form a governing coalition with like-minded partners, potentially delivering another inconclusive result less than six months after the last one.A close ally of President Donald Trump, Netanyahu is likely to continue to pursue his hard-line stance toward Palestinians if he remains prime minister, putting a two-state solution further out of reach.Gantz has campaigned on a promise of clean government and social harmony. He has called for pursuing peace with Palestinians while maintaining Israeli security.Gantz claimed Tuesday a vote for his party was a vote for change."We will succeed in bringing hope, all of us together, without corruption and without extremism," he said, in a thinly veiled swipe at Netanyahu's legal woes.

Leader of the Israeli Blue and White party and former IDF chief of staff, Benny Gantz, from right, and his wife Revital Gantz, leave a polling station after casting their votes during the Israeli parliamentary elections in Rosh Haayin, Israel.
Leader of the Israeli Blue and White party and former IDF chief of staff, Benny Gantz, from right, and his wife Revital Gantz, leave a polling station after casting their votes during the Israeli parliamentary elections in Rosh Haayin, Israel.Ilia Yefimovich

But sweeping conclusions may be hard to come by.In order to form the next government, one party will have to cobble together a coalition that commands 61 out of the 120 seats in the Israeli Parliament, known as the Knesset. It is usually the leader of the largest party that gets to attempt to form a government within the 42 days allocated.However if two parties tie, as happened in April, Israel's president will ask the leader he believes has the greatest chance of forming a government after consulting with party leaders.In the last election President Reuven Rivlin asked Netanyahu to try to form a government, but he fell one seat short after hisformer ally Avigdor Lieberman refused to join his coalition because he was opposed to the influence of ultra-Orthodox religious parties.Netanyahu became the first elected prime minister in Israeli history to stumble in forging a working government. Instead of risking another leader being able to negotiate a coalition governmenthe dissolved Parliament, triggering a snap election.No party has ever won a majority in Israeli politics.Also in play is the fact that Netanyahu could potentially be indicted in three corruption cases.Israel's attorney general is expected to decide whether to formally charge the prime minister by the end of the year, after a pre-trial hearing in October.If he remains prime minister, Netanyahu may be able to pass legislation that would grant him immunity, but if he loses he may have to appear in court and even face time in jail.All eyes remain on Lieberman, aformer defense minister, who has emerged as Israel's unlikely kingmaker with his new slogan: "Make Israel Normal Again."Paul Goldman reported from Tel Aviv, and Saphora Smith from London.