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Is Bibi Back? Netanyahu Declares Victory Despite Deadlocked Exit Polls

Though the outcome of Israel’s election appeared too close to call, the incumbent prime minister and his supporters were already declaring — and celebrating — victory.
Photo by Oded Balilty/AP

Though the outcome of Israel's election appeared too close to call on Tuesday night, incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters were already declaring — and celebrating — victory.

Exit polls showed a near-tie between Netanyahu's Likud party and their center-left Zionist Union (ZU) rivals. Each party appeared to win 27 seats, with a third poll showing Likud claiming 28 seats to ZU's 27. Though hardly definitive, the results were enough to make Netanyahu's supporters celebrate by breaking into dance and singing choruses of "Bibi King of Israel."


Although the final results won't come for hours, Netanyahu immediately took to Twitter to claim a "great victory against all odds." The claim was repeated later in the evening in person when the prime minister, grinning ear to ear, took center stage at the Likud camp and told his supporters, "I love you."

The adoration was reciprocated as the crowd responded with chants of "He's a wizard," and "Bibi is king." Outside the headquarters, young Israelis waved the country's flag and a long line of people snaked down the road eager to join the party. Despite the seeming impasse of the actual numbers, it looked like David had just defeated Goliath.

Related: How Israel's next government will be decided.

Netanyahu's boasts of keeping his crown may come back to haunt him. In 1996, he won a surprise victory against Shimon Peres after an overnight shift of just 1 percent meant that Israelis went to bed with one leader and woke up with another.

The dead heat was hardly the outcome Netanyahu expected when he announced early elections in December. Back then, Likud was riding high in the polls and a landslide victory seemed an almost foregone conclusion.

Netanyahu certainly won back a substantial amount of ground in the final days of campaigning. Polls released Friday — the last before voting day — showed the embattled prime minister's Likud lagging behind ZU by two to four seats, an outcome that would have left him struggling to form a coalition even in Israel's naturally right-leaning landscape.


"It's an impressive comeback by Netanyahu, apparently his media blitz over the past few days worked very well," Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, told VICE News.

The media blitz was essentially a desperate and unabashed last-ditch effort to win far-right voters over to Likud. In the days before the vote, Netanyahu accused foreign financiers of funding a leftist coup to usurp him. He also made an about-face turn on the possibility of a two-state solution, and warned a right-wing rally in Tel Aviv that only he could keep "Jerusalem united." On election day itself, his Likud party sent out spam messages to Israeli cellphones warning voters to "get out their houses" to counter Arabs who were voting in "droves."

Yet while he may have made gains from the strategy, Netanyahu's declaration of third consecutive Likud-led government is premature. Even if the polls are accurate in their prediction of 27 seats apiece for the rival parties, the figure is not enough for either side to definitively declare victory.

Related: Netanyahu warns US deal with Iran would turn Middle East into 'nuclear Tinderbox.' 

In Israel, a prime minister must be able to command a 61-seat majority in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in order to govern. Forming a coalition will likely take days and could even stretch into weeks.

With both Likud and ZU appearing to rule out a "unity government" pact, Moshe Kahlon's centrist Kulanu party will likely decide who takes the crown. Kahlon's party is expected to take around 10 seats, according to early exit polls. He is a former senior figure in Likud who won admiration from Israelis for slashing cellphone service prices during his time as minister of communications under Netanyahu. Importantly, he has said that he will not make a call until the final votes are in, meaning the race is still wide open.


Yet just down the road, in stark contrast to the Likud camp, the mood at ZU headquarters was somber as supporters muttered in corners about which way Kahlon would go. Issac Herzog, the party's bespectacled leader, quickly rebuffed Netanyahu's victory declaration as "spin," but the comeback lacked bite. Delivering a speech to a near-empty auditorium late Tuesday evening, Herzog urged supporters to "get some sleep" as there would be "no decision tonight."

Related: Netanyahu campaign ad says Islamic State will prevail if Israelis vote left in election. 

Ultimately, it's a numbers game — and a tight one. A revised poll put the ultra-orthodox Yachad party, who would likely back Likud, above the 3.25 percent vote share threshold to enter the Knesset. Both the potential re-entrance of Yachad and the decision of kingmaker Kahlon will likely decide to who leads the next government.

But despite the lack of clarity, at Likud party headquarters and on the streets of Tel Aviv it seemed as though the outcome had already been decided.

"Israel is a right-wing country," Eli Stern, 45, told VICE News with a wry smile as he passed the packed Likud camp festivities. "You can't beat the right here."

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem