SUPPORT for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has plummeted amid a surprise surge in popularity for centre-left parties, leaving the country’s right-wing bloc with only the slimmest of margins in the next parliament, exit polls indicate.
Right-wing religious and pro-settler parties are still expected to form the largest bloc with 61 seats, while the centre-left is expected to win 59 in the 120-seat Knesset.
Mr Netanyahu’s Likud Beiteinu list won just 31 seats – well down from the 45 seats the joint ticket was expected to win when Likud’s merger with former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party was announced in October. Mr Lieberman resigned last month to fight fraud and breach of trust charges.
In an unexpectedly strong performance, the centrist party of former television presenter Yair Lapid – Yesh Atid (There is a Future) – won 19 seats, the Labor Party won 17 seats and Naftali Bennett’s far-right Jewish Home took 12, exit polls indicated.
The religious Shas party won 12 seats, the left-wing Meretz won seven, as did former foreign minister Tzipi Livni’s centrist HaTnua party.
One of Yesh Atid’s newly-elected MPs, the rabbi Dov Lipman, said the result was a clear statement that “the people of Israel want to see a different direction . . . they want to get the country back on track”.
The voters had placed issues of equality, housing reform, reform of the electoral system and national service high on the next government’s agenda, he said.
“There is tremendous optimism and tremendous hope that the country . . . is going to be set on a much better course,” Rabbi Lipman said.
Election officials reported a higher than expected voter turnout – thought to benefit Yesh Atid and Labor.
As the day progressed, rumours of panic in the Likud camp grew louder and just two hours before polling closed, Mr Netanyahu told his supporters: “The Likud government is in danger, go vote for us for the sake of the country's future.”
Candidates from 34 parties were vying for a seat in the next parliament, and the election was widely expected to return Mr Netanyahu for a second consecutive term as prime minister (this will be his third term in total - his first was from 1996 to 1999).
The United Torah Judaism list won six seats, the leftist Hadash party won four, and the Arab Raam-Taal and Balad parties won three and two seats respectively.
The Kadima party – which won the largest number of seats in the 2009 election with 28 – did not make it across the two per cent threshold and will not win a single seat in this parliament.
Labor candidate Avishay Braverman, who will take his seat in the next Knesset, said while it is likely Mr Netanyahu will be the next prime minister, he will face major problems.
“The policies of Netanyahu got rejected by the public . . . the public doesn’t want Netanyahu . . . and he is facing more and more international isolation,” Professor Braverman said.
“We are close to [being able to form] a centre-left bloc with the Arabs – let’s see tomorrow morning.”
There may be another election in the next year or two that would produce a more decisive result, he said.
More than 5.65 million Israelis – including 800,000 Arab citizens – are eligible to vote in this election.
An exit poll for Israel's Channel 2 television gave the following breakdown for the 120 Knesset seats:
Likud Beiteinu - 31
Yesh Atid - 19
Labor - 17
Jewish Home - 12
Shas - 12
HaTnua - 7
Meretz - 7
United Torah Judaism - 6
Hadash - 4
Raam-Taal - 3
Balad - 2