The final polls are in and Israel’s election is a nail-biter

A Likud party supporter holds a picture of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, April 7, 2019. Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The final polls before Israel’s national election on Tuesday show Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party running either neck-and-neck or up to five seats behind upstart challenger Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party.

The last polls were published on Friday, the last day to do so by law. Exit polling will begin at 10 p.m. Israel time on Tuesday night.

The last poll of the day, aired Friday evening by Israel’s commercial Channel 13, showed Likud and Blue and White running neck and neck with 28 seats each. The Hebrew-language Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Acharonot poll released earlier on Friday had Likud at 26 seats and Blue and White at 30, while the Israel Hayom/i24 News poll had Likud at 27 seats and Blue and White at 27 seats.

The same polls all put the struggling Labor Party at 10 to 11 seats, followed by the combined Arab parties Hadash-Ta’al at six or seven seats.

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The Zehut party of former Likud lawmaker Moshe Feiglin polled at 5 or 6 seats depending on the survey. Feiglin, whose quasi-libertarian and nationalist party has captured the attention of young people who support the complete legalization of marijuana, polled at a consistent five or six seats in Friday’s tallies.

Regardless, Israelis are notorious for changing their minds about who to vote for.

A party must garner at least 3.25 percent of the total vote in order to pass the threshold to enter the Knesset. Of the over 40 parties running in this national election, only about 14 parties will manage to pass that threshold.

A ruling government coalition must have at least 61 seats, and preferably more if it wants to pass legislation on a regular basis. And the party that gets the most votes in Tuesday’s election may not be the party that gets to form the next government.

Following the election results, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will meet with the heads of each party to find out who they would choose to form a government with. Because in most polls the right wing bloc appears to have enough seats to form a government, even if Netanyahu’s Likud party comes in several seats behind Blue and White, it likely will be Netanyahu and not Gantz who is tasked with forming the next government.

Things were thrown into a tailspin on Sunday, however, when Zehut’s Feiglin — who had been saying in recent days that he would be willing to join a government led by either Netanyahu or Gantz, as long as he could advance his party’s policies — said that he is considering recommending himself as prime minister.

The Channel 13 poll gave Netanyahu and a right-wing bloc 60 seats without Zehut and 66 seats with it. The Yediot poll gave the right-wing bloc 63 seats, or 57 without Zehut. The Israel Hayom-i24 News poll gave Netanyahu 64 seats with Feiglin and 58 without.

Projected totals for some of the smaller parties include between five and seven seats for the Union of Right-wing parties, five to six seats for the New Right, between five and eight for the left-wing Meretz Party, five to six seats for the Sephardic Orthodox Shas Party, and up to four or five seats for Yisrael Beiteinu, if it passes the threshold, according to some polls.

Netanyahu pulled out all the stops in an effort to strip votes from some of the smaller parties on Sunday, telling right-wing supporters that if they chose to vote for a smaller right-wing party that Likud might not have enough votes for Rivlin to realistically allow Netanyahu to form the next government. Whether that is true remains to be seen.

The prime minister also vowed to consider annexing the West Bank if elected, in an effort to rally right-wing voters.

Paper ballots cast throughout the country will be counted on Tuesday night, with a preliminary total on Wednesday morning. Votes cast by soldiers on their bases, patients in hospitals, and diplomats working overseas are added in later.