The latest Israeli exit polls are saying that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party looks to take 28 seats in the Knesset, with Isaac Herzog's Labor Party right behind at 27. A coalition of Arabic parties appears to be in third, with 13 seats, which may complicate things for Netanyahu as the next phase -- forming a government -- takes over in the next few weeks.
In a last-ditch appeal to the far-right ahead of the vote, Netanyahu ruled out the establishment of a Palestinian state if reelected, effectively reneging on his 2009 endorsement of a two-state solution.
The Israeli Prime Minister, who served for three years in the 1990s before reassuming power in March 2009, was also broadly criticized after traveling to the United States to address the House of Representatives on Iran, which many saw as an election stunt.
Some 5.8 million Israelis were eligible to vote in Tuesday’s election, with 25 parties in the race for the Knesset’s 120 seats. The complex calculus of apportioning power in Israel means that control of the government will rest in the hands of a number of parties.
With smaller rightwing and religious parties likely to win more seats than the left, experts say Netanyahu has a better chance of piecing together a majority of at least 61 seats needed to win backing for a coalition.
Some observers, including reporters for the New York Times, saw the election as different from prior years, in that various Arab parties coalesced around a single candidate. They "appeared to be supporting the Joint Arab List, an alliance of four small parties that together could win a significant bloc in the 120-seat Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, potentially preventing Mr. Netanyahu from gaining the 61 seats he needs to form a government."
"The Arab parties have maintained that they will honor their tradition of refusing to join any governing coalition," added the Times. "But their leader, Ayman Odeh, has indicated he would support Isaac Herzog — the leader of the center-left Zionist Union alliance, Mr. Netanyahu’s most important adversary — if Mr. Netanyahu is defeated."
Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, said it was a “historic day” for Israel’s Arab minority, which makes up 20 percent of the population and expects to win up to 15 seats — which would make it the third bloc in the Knesset.
“When we have 15 MPs we will be able to influence the decision making, no one will be able to act without the third-largest party in parliament,” he told AFP.
In the mixed Jewish-Arab port city of Haifa, people lined up outside an Arab school to cast their vote.
“This is the first time that I’ve seen so many people here to vote,” said Ehab Hamam, a 37-year-old Arab Israeli working in hi-tech.
“For the Arabs, voting in this election is saying to the right: We are here,” he said.
“I’ve never seen such a long queue outside a polling station,” agreed 73-year-old Gideon Leber.
It is Israel’s third election since 2009 and the biggest challenge yet for Netanyahu, who is seeking a third consecutive term but has seen polls giving Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union a three-to-four seat lead.
*CHANGE THIS* [But even if] Herzog wins the most votes, he will face an almost impossible task to cobble together a majority without forming a unity government with Likud — an option Netanyahu has ruled out.
So far, the centrist Yesh Atid and the leftwing Meretz have agreed to back him, but the Joint List of Arab Israeli parties has ruled out joining a Herzog-led coalition.
Netanyahu was also criticized for comments in which he remarked that "Arab voters" would drive him from power.
“Right-wing rule is in danger. Arab voters are streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations,” Netanyahu said in a video posted on social media. “The left-wing nonprofit organizations are bringing them in buses.”
“With your help and God’s help we will form a national government and protect the state of Israel,” he added.