Israel vote too close to call

Greg Nash

Exit polls on Tuesday found Israel’s parliamentary elections are too close to call.

Israel's Channel 10 projected after the polls closed Tuesday night that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party and the Zionist Union slate would each take 27 seats in the next parliament, The Times of Israel reported.

Channel 2 found that Likud had a small lead, with 28 seats to Zionist Union's 27.

With the race that close, it was not immediately clear if Netanyahu would retain his grip on power.

Typically, the president gives the party that wins the most seats a chance to form a coalition government. But if that party isn't successful, other parties would have a chance to cobble together a ruling bloc of their own.

Even the most prominent parties in Israel typically only win a plurality of votes, in which case it's up to that party’s leaders to negotiate a coalition that brings them the majority of the body.

Netanyahu returned to power in 2009 with such deal-making.

When the Kadima Party, which won the plurality of voters, failed to unite enough lawmakers under its coalition, Netanyahu’s coalition successfully won power.

This time, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has intimated that he'll give whichever party has the best chance at success the first attempt at creating a coalition. So despite Tuesday's election results, the fate of Netanyahu and the Israeli parliament is not sealed.

If the exit polls hold, or remain reasonably close, all eyes will turn to Moshe Kahlon, leader of the newly founded Kulanu Party, who split from Netanyahu's Likud Party in 2013 and is expected to pick up as many as 10 Knesset seats in today's election. Kahlon's strong showing positions him as kingmaker, with both Netanyahu and Herzog likely requiring his support to pass the 60-seat threshold needed to form a coalition.

The Obama administration and Congress will be watching the results closely.

It was just two weeks ago that Netanyahu gave an impassioned speech to Congress criticizing President Obama’s nuclear negotiations with Iran. Wheeling and dealing by Israel’s parties could now take place as U.S. negotiators meet with their Iranian counterparts to hammer out a deal by a March 31 deadline.

While tensions between Obama and Netanyahu have long been obvious, the White House has remained officially neutral in the elections.
“President Obama remains committed to working very closely with the winner of the ongoing elections to cement and further deepen the strong relationship between the United States and Israel," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday afternoon. “The president is confident that he can do that with whomever the Israeli people choose.”

Netanyahu and Obama have repeatedly clashed since both assumed office in 2009.

The Israeli leader on Monday said he would never allow the creation of a Palestinian state, a reversal of his earlier position and one opposed by the Obama administration.

A government led by the center-left Zionist Union, led by Isaac Herzog, could give Obama the chance to rebuild ties with Israel at a critical time for a potential nuclear deal with Iran.

Herzog has pledged to help mend U.S.-Israel ties and re-start peace talks with the Palestinian territories. But Herzog has been hesitant to throw his full support behind a nuclear deal with Iran.

“I trust the Obama administration to get a good deal,” Herzog told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in an interview last December. “We hope they'll get the best deal possible.”

Herzog, however, said “we should not rule any alternative off the table” until a deal is struck.

“We shouldn't be naïve to believe that if there's a deal, all is well,” he added, adding that strict supervision is needed because “the policies of the Iranian regime are clear to us.”

—Neetzan Zimmerman contributed to this story. 

This story was updated at 5:11 p.m.