Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared victory late Tuesday night based on all three exit poll results showing his Likud party winning with more than 30 mandates, and sending him to a record seventh term in office.
“Citizens of Israel – thank you! You gave a huge victory to the Right and the Likud under my leadership. The Likud is the biggest party by far … It’s clear most Israelis are right-wing, and want a strong, stable right-wing government,” Netanyahu said.
The prime minister also placed a call to Religious Zionist Party leader Bezalel Smotrich to offer his congratulations on a job well done: the party had not been expected to draw more than four or five seats at most. However, Likud had for weeks also urged voters to support Smotrich, who broke off from Yamina to form his own party this time around.
According to all three exit polls, the Religious Zionist party won 7 seats in the new Knesset. At present it appears certain that not only Bezalel Smotrich but also Itamar Ben-Gvir and Avi Maoz will enter the Knesset along with him.
Yair Lapid’s leftist Yesh Atid party came in as a strong second with at least 18 seats and possibly more depending on the exit poll. However, Netanyahu appeared confident he will be able to garner the support of all the right-wing parties, including Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party — which won 7 to 8 seats, which will give him the necessary 61 mandates to secure a coalition government.
That, however, may become a sticking point: In a statement released right after the first exit polls, Yamina party chairman Naftali Bennett said he would “do what’s right for the State of Israel” but made it clear he had not yet committed himself to Netanyahu or anyone else. Senior Likud lawmaker and Minister Miri Regev commented in an interview with Channel 13 that Bennet “has a place of honor in a Likud government,” She added that her interpretation of Bennett’s remark was that he “understands that at this moment the elections are over and in the current situation he should sit in a right-wing government.”
In an interview last week with Israel Hayom and i24TV, Yamina’s Number 2 Ayelet Shaked pledged to “form a right-wing government with a right-wing prime minister.” Bennett signed a pledge last week not to sit in a government led by Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, so it is likely he will join the Netanyahu bloc even though his negotiating terms will probably be tough.
Sephardic Orthodox Shas supporters were reportedly frantic to enter their party’s headquarters as exit polls began to come in. The struggle to make it into the building was so frantic, in fact, that it ended with the compound gates being pulled off the hinges and the mob shoving its way past the security guards who were posted at the entrance. Efforts to disperse the crowd, which included deployment of pepper spray and allegedly even tasers, were only somewhat effective, according to two reports.
The left-wing Meretz party eventually came through with 6 seats — more than originally projected — more seats than expected, according to Israel’s Kan public broadcasting news outlet. Meretz party leader Tamar Zandberg said she was “proud of ourselves” for having tipped the scales despite earlier dismal predictions, Israel Hayom reported. “Even if the darkest predictions come true and a Netanyahu government is formed, there will be [someone] that will give it a fight,” Zandberg said in her statement.
The IDF, meanwhile, reported that its soldiers came through with the highest turnout it has seen in the past two decades, with 77 percent of its rank and file making it to the polls to cast their ballots. That turnout comes in contrast to the abysmal showing of the general population, which to a great extent showed its lack of enthusiasm for repeated electioneering by staying home in droves.