Prime Minister Netanyahu triumphed in Israel?s 23rd Knesset election despite his imminent criminal trial for fraud and bribery due to start in three weeks and last month?s Gaza flare up.
Exit polls confirmed later by an initial count of 97 percent of the vote indicated a big win for the right-wing/chareidi bloc with 59 seats against the center-left?s 39.
Likud did better than in any pre-election polls, beating Blue and White with 36 seats versus 32. But the win was not large enough because it leaves Netanyahu two seats short of the 61 Knesset votes he needs to form a majority coalition government. The Arab Joint List followed with 15 seats, giving the Knesset more Arab lawmakers than it had since 1949. Shas came next with 10 seats, UTJ, Yisroel Beiteinu and Labor-Gesher-Meretz got 7 apiece and Yamina 6.
Religious right-wing upstart Otzma Yehudit failed to pass the 3.25% electoral threshold needed to qualify for Knesset seats and wasted precious votes that might have enabled Ntanyahu to gain the additional Knesset seat or two he needs to build a coalition government.
The Knesset vote count will not be finalized until the beginning of next week, after the votes cast by members of the military and the diplomatic corps are counted separately, and the surplus votes won by each party are re-allocated according to prior agreements. As a result, the current projected Knesset vote distribution between the right and left blocks could still vary by 1 or 2 seats, a difference which could make or break Netanyahu?s efforts to form a coalition.
In a campaign which centered on large doses of anti-religious rhetoric, the victory of the right wing was especially sweet for the religious community. Netanyahu ran an extremely aggressive campaign, while Gantz was slow to respond in kind and by the time he did, it was too little and too late.
Despite his downfall, Gantz was confident that with a two-vote gap between 59 and 61, Netanyahu will never manage to cobble together a coalition. It should also be kept in mind that a major reason Netanyahu called for new elections at the beginning of last year was that he found it impossible to direct state affairs with a tiny majority of 61 to 59.
Anger on the left was immediate with calls for Benny Gantz to resign.
?The campaign was terrible,? a Blue and White activist said. ?Netanyahu gave it to us and we didn?t push back. Too much statesmanship. It cost us the election. Two days ago we remembered to get aggressive.?
Under Gantz?s lackluster leadership, Blue and White started the campaign with a clear lead in the opinion polls, but Likud mounted an impressive surge to overtake it during the final week before Election Day. Blue and White was formed last year as a loose alliance of convenience among three different parties formed primarily for the purpose of ousting Netanyahu as prime minister. Now that it has failed for the third time to achieve that goal, some Israeli political observers question how much longer Blue and White can remain unified.
A UNITED RIGHT/CHAREIDI BLOC
Striding into the Likud celebration in Tel Aviv to savor his victory, Netanyahu was greeted by a thousand voices singing, Binyomin, yedid Hashem to a special tune composed in his honor. Hundreds thundered, ?Hurray Bibi! Hurray Sarah, [Attorney General] Mandelblit go home!?
?Mi?shenichnos Adar, marbim besimcha,? Netanyahu told the crowd. ?And what a simcha we have tonight! This is the night of a giant victory.?
?Do you know why people trusted us?? he asked. ?Because we brought them the best decade in Israel?s history. We?ve turned Israel into a power. We?ve developed connections that didn?t exist with world leaders. When I say we will make agreements with more Arab countries I?m not just talking. It?s going to happen!?
With tears of excitement dampening his face, he spoke of plans to begin the annexation of Yehuda and Shomron and sign a historic defense pact with the US already discussed with President Trump.
Netanyahu already said earlier that if re-elected, he plans to declare sovereignty over the Jordan valley and the Jewish West Bank ?two months at the most, I hope,? as well as bring down the cost of living.
?This was a great victory for the right-wing camp, and first and foremost a victory for us Likudnikim,? he said. Netanyahu said another election would not be needed and now it is ?time to heal the rifts?
?I intend to be the prime minister of every citizen of Israel, every right-wing voter, left-wing voter, Jews and non-Jews, every sector and every gender,? he proclaimed.
Informing the audience that he had spoken to the leaders of the right-wing/chareidi camp but wanted to be prime minister of the whole nation, he was interrupted with calls from the crowd, ?No to a unity government, we don?t want unity.?
Meeting with heads of the right-wing/chareidi bloc, it was mutually agreed that a strong national government will be set up as soon as possible. In addition, the parties approved that no party recognizing Israel as a Jewish democratic state will be disqualified from joining, a broad hint that even Lieberman?s Yisroel Beiteinu party could be included despite recent statements of Netanyahu to the contrary.
MK Moshe Gafni of UTJ made it clear that he only agreed to a wider government, not a unity government in partnership with Blue and White. He committed to introducing legislation to outlaw change in the status quo of public transportation on Shabbos.
Yamina leader Naftoli Bennett has promised to try to lower the upper age of enlistment from 24 to 21 ?to enable myriads of chareidim who want to get a profession to enter the work market? and become engineers and programmers instead of ?this stupid law that forces them not to go out and work until they?re 24.??
According to schedule, President Reuven Rivlin should begin consulting with parties about whom they want to set up a government on March 10 and then give whoever is selected 28 days to make the first attempt.
MILLIONS GO OUT TO VOTE
From Matulla to Eilat, 10,631 regular polling stations and 14 for people in quarantine opened for Israel?s third election in less than a year. By day?s end, an unusually high 71 percent of 6,453,255 Israelis had cast their votes for 29 parties with only eight expected to clear the 3.25 percent electoral threshold.
Victory of a left-wing secular government could have precipitated a process that has been gathering steam for the past two years ? the fight to open a Reform track at the Kosel, agitation of non-Orthodox groups for more rights, increasing public transport and commerce on Shabbos, forcing through the draft of yeshiva students and increasingly strident demands for independent kashrus and conversion bodies.
Gantz and Lieberman had made no bones about opening a hostile battle against the Torah world if they got into the driver?s seat.
The evening before the polling station opened, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his wife visited the Kosel to say a prayer. Both left kvitlech, the premier?s stating, ?I pray that this last great push should bring a good government to the people of Israel, Eretz Yisroel and the State of Israel.?
As the polling booths opened, Netanyahu urged the public not to let fear of the coronavirus keep them at home.
?I urge the citizens of Israel to go vote,? he said. ?This is a great democratic right and we should be proud of it, we can confidently go to vote today. I say ?confidently? because we have done everything we can against the coronavirus. Everything is under control and we have taken every possible measure. Don?t believe fake news; you can vote with determination and confidence.?
THE ELECTIONS ARE PIKU?ACH NEFESH
Asked whether people should put off voting to avoid the risk of coronavirus infection, Rav Chaim Kanievsky responded, ?The elections are pikuach nefesh.?
Days before the elections, he had made several exhausting trips to ?Levakesh Rachamim? rallies throughout Israel despite his advanced age. These included rallies at the Kosel and in Tzefas, a city Rav Chaim last visited 20-years-ago. The last rally was held outdoors in Beit Shemesh in freezing rain.
Chareidi leaders set the tone of the day by personal example.
Early in the morning, prominent rabbonim gathered at the Kosel for a special tefillah for the success of the elections, safety from the coronavirus epidemic and the refu?ah shleimah of cholei Yisroel.
Hundreds accompanied Rav Gershon Edelstein of Ponevez as he trudged for 20 minutes by foot to the nearest voting booth, to demonstrate the importance of heeding the gedolei Yisrael?s behest to vote.
Rav Yitzchok Sheiner, rosh yeshiva of Kamenitz, rose early in the morning from sitting shivah for his sister, Rebbetzin Leah Goldstein, and rushed out to vote at the nearby Seminar Hachadash.
After casting his vote, the Viznitzer Rebbe danced joyfully to the song, Hashem hu malkeinu.
?By voting for gimel we are mekadshim shem Shomayim and this is our purpose in life,? he said.
Former Rishon Letzion Rav Shlomo Amar phoned Aryeh Deri to reassure him that he had recited a special tefillah and tikun for the day?s success, adding, ?Have no fear, hakolos lo yechdolun (the votes won?t stop coming, a play on Shemos 9:29 where Hashem told Moshe that the hail and thunder would stop) and there?ll be a big success.?
Apprised that the voting percentage was low in chareidi neighborhoods, the Belzer Rebbe went out to vote for the second time in his life even though his general policy is to follow the example of his uncle, Rav Aharon of Belz, who did not vote but always told others to do so.
Later in the day, Rav Gershon Edelstein of Ponevez gathered a group of talmidim and confidants to recite Tehillim. In a break from his usually calm temperament, he wept emotionally and his face became wet with tears.
Anxious to heed the directive of gedolei Yisroel that even people overseas should participate in the elections, dozens of London chareidim in London had bought plane tickets to get to Israel in time, only to be told that the flight had been delayed from 11:45 a.m. to 22:20 p.m. by which time they would reach Israel too late to vote.
Refusing to give up, chareidi photographer Shlomi Cohen paid for a different flight to reach Israel in time, saying, ?If heeding all that they instruct us costs me an extra few hundred dollars, it?s worth it.?
QUARANTEENED VOTE IN SPECIAL TENTS
The elections were held beneath a cloud of fear.
In a survey conducted by the Midgam company, 6.5 percent of respondents, the equivalent of more than 400,000 voters, said they were considering forgoing their right to vote due to fear of the virus. A special team was set up to investigate fake reports of coronavirus outbreaks and it was publicized that the health ministry would be the sole source of authentic news.
Despite the coronavirus fears, voter turnout for this election was the highest since 2015.
Sixteen special booths opened in major cities for 5,630 voters under home quarantine after coming into possible contact with the coronavirus. Quarantined voters were instructed not to stop anywhere on their way to the polling stations and put on face masks before exiting their cars.
The booths were comprised of two conjoined tents with a communicating window. One tent housed specially trained paramedics acting as polling staff in full protective gear. The other was for the voters who removed their masks momentarily for identification and then put on a new face mask and gloves to cast their ballots, which were later counted by staff wearing special protective gear.
Such long queues developed outside the special booths that in some places it took one-and-a-half hours to reach the front of the line.
People became impatient. In one instance, commotion erupted at a Yerushalayim voting poll when a policeman addressed the queue with a megaphone, demonstrating obvious fear of getting too near. This instigated someone to yell, ?Stop treating us like lepers.?
The day before the elections, Gantz accused Likud of deliberately spreading false reports about the virus to keep Blue and White voters from the polls. His case in point were reports, immediately denied by the health ministry, that parts of a mall in the Blue and White stronghold of Givatayim had been closed after a shopper was thought to have the virus.
?Did you ask yourselves why Givatayim?? Gantz asked. ?Because Givatayim is a Blue-White Lavan stronghold, and this is exactly what Netanyahu is planning to do tomorrow. He intends to disrupt Election Day, to spread fake news in all the areas associated with Blue-White in order to keep you at home.?
THOUSANDS OF VOTES UP IN SMOKE
The right wing/chareidi bloc may have won 61 seats if not for the obstinacy of one man, which led to 80,000 votes going up in smoke.
Itamar Ben Gevir, head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party refused to give up despite never once passing the electoral threshold in polls. An eleventh hour Likud effort to persuade him to quit the race failed when he presented a list of five impossible demands: To annul the Oslo Accords; to stop allowing Qatari aid to Hamas; to halt judicial involvement in the appointment of new judges; to eliminate the authority of the Jordanian controlled Waqf from Har Habayis and to evacuate the illegal Bedouin village Khan al-Ahmar near Yerushalayim no later than last Friday.
In a last-ditch desperate measure to prevent the wasting of right wing votes, fake letters arrived at several polling stations stating that Otzma Yehudit had finally left the race.
Political commentators noted that the two Knesset seats that Netanyahu now needs to put together a coalition were lost to the Joint Arab List, which apparently succeeded in its efforts to reach out to frustrated left-wing Jewish voters. Those voters rejected a united candidate list presented by an alliance of the main Jewish liberal parties, Labor, Meretz and Gesher, which won only 7 Knesset seats, an all-time low for the Israeli left. The Joint List turnout was also bolstered by strong Israeli-Arab opposition to the Trump peace plan and their desire to prevent Netanyahu from fulfilling his promise to begin implementing the plan by annexing the West Bank settlements soon after the election.
Even Netanyahu?s critics admitted that he ran an excellent campaign that motivated many of the Likud supporters who had stayed home in the last two elections to come out and vote this time. This enabled Likud to surpass Blue and White by a significant margin.
With only 59 seats, the right-wing bloc needs to find at least two deserters from the opposing camp, and there are not that many potential candidates. Politicians and rabbonim have previously attempted to persuade MK Omer Yankelevitch of Har Nof, Blue White?s only chareidi politician, to move to rightwards without success.
She rejected rumors that she may change her mind, saying, ?Just as it was untrue and did not happen in the first and second rounds of elections, it will not happen in the third round as well.?
Another potential defector is Orly Levy-Abekasis of Labor-Gesher-Meretz who has been very quiet during the election campaign and is thought to be disgruntled. She is a daughter of longtime Likud leader, David Levy.
If there are no defections, Netanyahu may find himself in the same position as just after the election in April last year, when he started with a 60-seat right-wing bloc yet failed to make a coalition.
Even with 61, Netanyahu will be faced with the legal challenge of whether an indicted criminal defendant can be selected by the president to form a new government, an issue that is bound to spark huge conflict in coming weeks.