Netanyahu Claims Victory (with VIDEO REPORT)
Following third round of elections, Likud takes lead in early results but still has no clear path to majority
Following a third election in less than a year, Israelis appeared to have given a strong mandate to the incumbent Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in spite of his Likud party lagging in pre-election polls and his upcoming trial, set to begin on March 17.
Monday’s vote represented a significant victory for Netanyahu, who has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and shows Likud winning 36 seats in Israel’s 120-member parliament after 90% of votes were counted. The centrist Blue and White party came in second place and was projected to take 32 seats.
The law in Israel says that a prime minister who is indicted and goes on trial while sitting at the head of an existing government can remain in office unless found guilty and exhausting all avenues of appeal. But it says nothing about whether this applies to a prime minister attempting to establish a new government. The country’s top court preferred to stay out of the argument when it was raised before Monday’s election but it may be just a matter of time until a new petition forces it to address the matter.
Addressing ecstatic supporters in Tel Aviv early on March 3, Netanyahu said: “We love you and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts. This night is a gigantic victory.
“We stood against vast forces; they already eulogized us,” he continued. “Our opponents said, ‘The Netanyahu era is over.’ But together we flipped the story. We turned lemons into lemonade.”
In what sounded like a concession speech, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz meanwhile told supporters in Tel Aviv that the centrist alliance had “only now embarked on its path. We have a long way to go.”
But he reminded them that Netanyahu goes on trial for alleged corruption in just a couple of weeks.
“Criminal processes are decided only in the courtroom,” Gantz said, alluding to concerns that Netanyahu, should he form a government, might seek to legislate immunity or a deferred trial. “We will be in the streets. We won’t let anyone destroy our country. We won’t let anyone divide us, dismantle Israeli society or crush our democracy.”
Capped by results giving Netanyahu’s right-wing/religious bloc 59 seats, the Likud leader will probably be given an opportunity to form a government. There is no guarantee he will be able to form a 61-seat majority coalition, however, barring defections from the center-left parties or Yisrael Beitenu – which won seven seats – joining the fray. Led by Avigdor Liberman, Yisrael Beitenu is a staunchly right-wing but secular party that so far has remained outside Netanyahu’s bloc owing to the presence of ultra-Orthodox parties.
Despite these uncertainties, Likud officials were jubilant as early results poured in.
“The public has made its voice heard – [Binyamin] Netanyahu will be the next prime minister,” Likud cabinet minister Miri Regev told The Media Line. “The Left has been defeated. All attempts to take down Netanyahu … before the election brought on the opposite result.”
Knesset Speaker and senior Likud figure Yuli Edelstein called the results a “landslide victory” for Likud.
“The Likud and [party head Binyamin] Netanyahu will lead the next government,” he asserted to The Media Line.
At Blue and White headquarters, the atmosphere was more subdued as many expressed disappointment over results showing the center-left parties lagging behind the right-wing bloc at 54-55 seats.
“I am not very happy with the results now but we have to wait,” Blue and White lawmaker Yael German said to The Media Line as exit poll results came in. “There were three rounds [of elections], and until now, [Likud leader] Binyamin Netanyahu did not succeed in forming a government, so maybe [Blue and White leader Benny] Gantz will be able to form a government this time.”
Fellow Blue and White lawmaker Orit Farkash-Hacohen revealed that the party had suffered from a “lot of fake news” but that they remained hopeful things would change in the coming months.
“We did some really good work,” she told journalists. “It’s important to remember that Blue and White is in existence for only a year. We’ve changed the political order in Israel.”
After Likud and Blue and White, the majority-Arab Joint List was set to retain its position as Israel’s third-largest party, winning 15 seats – two more than in the previous round of voting and its strongest showing ever.
Made up of four smaller parties, the Joint List hailed Monday’s results as a victory of “historic proportions” but also slammed Blue and White for handing Netanyahu an easy win.
“I have conflicted feelings,” Joint List leader Ayman Odeh told The Media Line. “On the one hand, I am proud of our people. This is our best result since the First Knesset in 1949. This time we passed the 13-member barrier and it’s a historic achievement. The problem is the failed Blue and White party, which wants to imitate the original Right.”
Joint List lawmaker Ahmad Tibi similarly accused Benny Gantz and his party of a “terrible failure” and blamed Blue and White’s move rightwards on the ideological spectrum as the root cause of their loss.
“They pushed and failed, perhaps, to effect political change in Israel,” Tibi conveyed to The Media Line.
(Lawrence Rifkin contributed to this report.)