JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vaulted ahead of his main challenger in national elections Monday, according to exit polls, with the strong showing by his Likud party bringing him to the brink of a parliamentary majority.
But the poll results put Netanyahu's right-wing bloc two seats shy of achieving that governing majority in the 120-seat parliament, or Knesset, and breaking a year-long impasse in Israeli politics.
Official results being tabulated overnight could hand his coalition an outright victory — or leave it even further out of reach.
With Israelis voting in national elections for the third time in less than year, the unexpectedly strong performance was a victory for Netanyahu, who had failed to wrest a governing majority in the last two votes and was indicted in November on charges of bribery, fraud and abuse of trust. His corruption trial is scheduled to start later this month.
"A huge victory for Israel," Netanyahu tweeted after the initial exit poll results were released.
The exit poll results came as a jarring disappointment to Netanyahu's main rival, Benny Gantz, a ramrod-straight former military chief, who presented himself as the ethical antithesis of Netanyahu. While Gantz's performance as a political newcomer produced solid results in the first two elections, he seems to have fallen short Monday.
Gantz was defiant early Tuesday, telling supporters that he would fight on.
"I'm not afraid of a long journey," Gantz said. "I'm not afraid at all."
Exit polls from three Israeli television stations gave Netanyahu's Likud either 36 or 37 seats, with Gantz's Blue and Party taking 32 or 33 seats. Netanyahu's overall coalition, which includes several allied religious and right-wing parties, combined for 59 seats in each of the exit polls.
That is better than his bloc's position after the previous election but a seat less than after the election in April. Netanyahu was unable to form a government after either vote.
Official results are expected by Tuesday, and if they confirm the exit polls, this could signal a continuation of the stalemate that has plagued Israeli politics for months.
"Sixty seats doesn't guarantee anything," said former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. "A fourth election is still possible."
Gantz's Blue and White party, which was formed a year ago as a center-left challenger to the prime minister's coalition, did well enough in the April election to deny Netanyahu an outright victory. In the September do-over vote, Gantz's side won more seats in the Knesset but failed to cobble together a governing coalition.
While campaigning ahead of the three-peat election, Netanyahu waged a diplomatic blitz, including a visit to the White House to join President Donald Trump for the release of his Middle East peace plan and another to Moscow to bring home an Israeli backpacker jailed on drug charges.
The prime minister also pushed back relentlessly against the corruption allegations, blasting what he said was a rigged justice system that was desperate to remove him from office
"He does amazing things, and everybody around the world knows this," said bus driver Yehuda Pinkosov, 63, a Netanyahu supporter from Modi'in. "The left is just looking for ways to hurt him and remove him."
The Likud party put tremendous energy into motivating its traditional voters. And in the end, they rallied to his side, turning out in higher numbers than in the previous elections.
"Netanyahu got people to come out and vote for him. He realized correctly there were only a few votes in play and that this election was all about turnout," said Jonathan Rynhold, a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. "He did not have to convince people to vote for him, but he needed to get people to go out and vote."
While the election was the third in less than a year, turnout outpaced the previous two elections, a surprise for many political observers who had predicted voters would stay away because of spiking coronavirus fears and electoral exhaustion.
The final tally put turnout at 71%, the highest since 2015.
Hundreds of voters who are in precautionary quarantine because of possible exposure to coronavirus donned masks and gloves and came to more than a dozen special biohazard voting places staffed by paramedics.
The fears of infectious disease had been only the latest worry for an electorate anxious from nonstop politicking, adding hand washing to the hand wringing.
"I'm totally following it, and I'm totally frustrated," Jon Pollin, a Jerusalem-based tech executive who had voted twice before for the liberal Meretz party but may switch this time to the Blue and White party of opposition leader Benny Gantz. "And I'm going to be even more frustrated when we're right back here for a fourth election."
In Modi'in, a city of almost 93,000 halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, voters at Dorot Elementary School expressed a mix of fatigue, exasperation and growing uncertainty over the state of Israel's political system and how it is working for them.
"It's getting surreal," said Galia Meir, 42, who declined to say which party's ballot she had just dropped into the box. "This time, people are more confused and unsure about how to vote. Every time, clarity is going down and down. The longer this goes on, the more the slogans just make us lose trust in our leaders."
Meir, an attorney at the Ministry of Finance, has fretted to see the wheels of government grind to a near halt in the year of political limbo. "I've seen projects that were approved but are stalled without money from the budget," she said.
Razi Elbaz, a coder and part-time musician in a black Vans T-shirt, would say only that he had not voted for Likud. He also expressed fear of what the intractable division was starting to do to the country. The lack of government stability was one risk, he said, and deepening civic anger was another.
"I know people who vote for different parties than their family, and it causes real tension for them," he said, before heading off to join the throngs of Israelis crowding local parks, malls and cafes for the rest of the day off.
Pinkosov, the bus driver, had just voted without fear or confusion, casting his third ballot in a row for the religious Shas party that is part of Netanyahu's coalition.
"I killed two birds with one stone, voting for Shas and voting for Netanyahu to stay," Pinkosov said with pride as his wife and daughter nodded in agreement. None expressed any doubt about Netanyahu's integrity or commitment to Israel.
Israel's Arab political parties also celebrated the early results. The group of Arab Israeli parties, which ran together again under the Joint List banner, won 14 or 15 seats, according to the three exit polls, maintaining a place as the Knesset's third largest faction. The Arab vote has grown over each of the past three elections, reflecting greater political participation by Palestinians who are citizens of Israel.
"Our public went to the polls in droves in the past two hours," said Ayman Odeh, a Knesset member from Haifa and leader of the Joint List. "It means that we have a responsible public that understood the enormity of the times."
The final stretch of the latest campaign had largely devolved into a mud bath. Political commentators noted Sunday that tactics had reached a new and dirty low even by Israel's rough-and-tumble standards, after voice recordings of political advisers that reflected badly on their candidates - one working with Netanyahu and one working with Gantz - were leaked to the press over the weekend.
This article was written by Steve Hendrix and Ruth Eglash, reporters for The Washington Post.