Netanyahu Holds Lead in Israeli Election but Could Miss Out on a Majority

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on track to win Israel’s latest election, but a parliamentary majority could prove elusive.

Photo: Artur Widak/Zuma Press

TEL AVIV—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held on to his lead in parliamentary elections but remained short of a majority needed to form a governing coalition, according to near-final voting counts.

With about 90% of the votes counted, Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party appeared to have won 36 seats, according to calculations by Israeli broadcasters. Taken together with the seats secured by his coalition partners, his bloc won 59 seats, leaving him two shy of the 61-seat majority in the Knesset needed to form a new government.

Meanwhile, Blue and White, the centrist party headed by Mr. Netanyahu’s rival, Benny Gantz, had 32 seats, according to the count. Together with his allies in the center-left, his bloc is set to win 54 seats overall.

The tally has swung over the course of the night, and the final votes could still prove critical in determining the ultimate outcome in such a close race.

The final allocation of seats in the Knesset may depend on more than 300,000 votes from Israelis unable to vote at their regular polling stations, such as soldiers and foreign diplomats, whose votes won’t be counted until at least Wednesday morning. This group also includes more than 4,000 who voted at special quarantine stations due to coronavirus precautions.

If Mr. Netanyahu’s bloc gains one further seat, that would increase his chances of forming a government, although he would still have to convince one parliamentarian to join his coalition.

He was in such a position in a previous parliamentary vote last April, when he won 60 seats but was unable to form a government. If he gains two seats, he can form a government without any additional support beyond the seats that his allies have already committed to him.

Current projections suggest the vote could produce another deadlock, prolonging nearly a year of political paralysis in the country.

National elections in April and September ended with neither Mr. Netanyahu nor Mr. Gantz able to muster the support to form a governing coalition. That pitched Israel into its third election in less than a year, a first for the country.

After nearly a year of political paralysis, Israel is holding another election. As Benjamin Netanyahu is weakened by corruption charges and Israel seeks a long term truce with Hamas in Gaza, here’s what the prolonged uncertainty means for the country and its economy. Photo: Oded Balilty/Associated Press

Once the official count is completed, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will begin consultations with the party leaders and ask one of them to attempt to form a government. That person then has six weeks to do so.

Avigdor Lieberman, head of the secular Yisrael Beiteinu party, could once again play the role of kingmaker with his projected seven seats. In last year’s elections, his refusal to join a Netanyahu government that included the support of Israel’s two ultraorthodox parties was critical in the prime minister’s failure to form a government.

Now, Mr. Lieberman could join Mr. Gantz’s camp. Mr. Lieberman repeated overnight his refusal to ally with Mr. Netanyahu if he heads forms a government with his religious allies.

Exit Polls

Projected seats for each political bloc in Israel’s parliament after Monday’s vote.

Supported Netanyahu as Prime Minister

in last election

Supported Gantz

Didn’t support either

Channel 11 poll

Channel 12 poll

Channel 13 poll

Current Knesset

Instead, if Mr. Netanyahu emerges victorious after two inconclusive election results, it would be a stunning political victory that would further his popular image after he last year became Israel’s longest-serving leader and boost his public standing as he fights indictments on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges.

If he wins a fifth term, his legal troubles will likely cloud him. His trial begins on March 17. One advocacy group, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, has already filed a legal challenge to his ability to form a government while under indictment. Israel’s attorney general will likely have to decide in the coming days whether Mr. Netanyahu can proceed with a new government.

Mr. Netanyahu was already reaching out to members of opposition parties on Tuesday morning to try to clinch a 61-seat majority.

“I expect that fairly shortly we’ll have the missing votes—one, two or three—from the other side,” said Jonathan Urich, an aide to the prime minister, on Israel’s Army Radio. “Talks are already being held with [parliamentarians] from several parties on the other side. They, just like Blue and White’s voters, understand that Benny Gantz essentially doesn’t have the ability to form a government.”

Former army chief of staff Benny Gantz, in Haifa on Monday, has tried to win voters weary of Mr. Netanyahu and his legal troubles.

Photo: jinipix/Shutterstock

If Mr. Netanyahu wins the election, he will be able to begin making good on his promise to annex territory in the West Bank, as allowed in the Trump administration’s peace plan.

A joint committee of Israeli and U.S. officials to agree on exact borders allowed under the blueprint has already begun to meet and U.S. and Israeli officials said the effort could take several months but would be aimed to be completed before the November 2020 U.S. elections.

Write to Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com

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