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How Israel’s election represents a referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu

Israeli voters went to the polls Tuesday to choose a prime minister and 120 members of the legislature. With election results too close to call, both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Blue and White coalition opponent, Benny Gantz, are claiming victory. For more on Israel’s fractured politics, Nick Schifrin talks to John Yang, reporting from Netanyahu’s election headquarters in Tel Aviv.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Israelis went to the polls today to choose a prime minister and 120 members of their Parliament. The two leading parties are both claiming victory, and, tonight, the results too close to call.

    Here's Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Israeli politics are always fractious, but the results from today's elections are particularly tight.

    Exit polls show Likud, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and a coalition known as Blue and White, led by former army chief Benny Gantz, to be neck-and-neck, and it's not yet clear which will be able to form a coalition government with smaller parties.

    Netanyahu's election quarters are in Tel Aviv, and that's where our John Yang is tonight.

    John, what are you hearing? What's the latest results that we're getting in?

  • John Yang:

    Well, the latest results, Nick, is that there are no results.

    As you see behind me, some members of the Likud Party are beginning to gather, suggesting that Benjamin Netanyahu will come here to declare victory, just as Benny Gantz did not too far away from here at his party headquarters not too long ago.

    Who is right? Who will be the next prime minister? Probably won't know for a little while. We won't know who got the most votes tonight until probably well into Wednesday at least. If it's even closer, we won't know for several days. They're going to have the wait for absentee ballots from soldiers, Israeli Defense Forces in far-flung various parts of Israel.

    They count by hand here. They do not give out frequent updates, as they do in the United States. So we're not likely to see any official numbers until Wednesday.

    One interesting result we're seeing tonight, though, is, you mentioned the fractiousness of Israeli politics. We're seeing some of that fractiousness go away. There's a new threshold for small parties to have seats in the legislature, which is called the Knesset.

    And, tonight, some of the parties that have been fixtures on the Israeli political landscape may not be in the Knesset at all. You're seeing two dominant parties moving toward a two-party system.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We're seeing two dominant parties move as close as we have seen to a two-party system in a few decades there. As you said, we won't know exactly who people are voting for, but we do know something here.

    We are seeing something, and that is, whether people are voting for or against him, all the voters are focused on the prime minister, Netanyahu, is that right?

  • John Yang:

    This really was a referendum on the past 10 years of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister.

    You know, we spent today going to polling places in Jerusalem, in Tel Aviv, talking to voters as they came out about who they voted for. And even those who voted for or supported Benny Gantz framed their votes in terms of Netanyahu.

  • Emily Lightstone:

    I think even Bibi supporters can see how much he's messed up the last few years. I never supported him, but I think at this point, we just need a change. I don't know that anybody is really good, but not Bibi.

  • Dennis Allon:

    After 13 years of stagnation, 13 years of where our prices of apartments in this area have tripled, there needs to be an absolute change in the government. Enough is enough, and enough of the corruption, and enough of the scandals that are going on. We need a new and clean fresh slate.

  • Daniel Zilberberg:

    I voted for Bibi four years ago, but I think that we have had enough of him.

  • John Yang:

    Whether positive or negative, Benjamin Netanyahu continues to dominate the political debate. Whether or not he will be prime minister remains to be seen, though.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    John, this is a complicated process over the next few days and perhaps even weeks. Walk us through what happens next.

  • John Yang:

    This is a complicated and maybe some say convoluted process.

    It all starts on April 17. That is the day that the official results are announced. Then begins a series of seven days of party leaders, the leaders of parties who won seats in the Parliament tonight, going to the Israeli president. They tell the Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, who they would recommend, who they would want to see as prime minister.

    As these conversations go on, Rivlin is doing mental math. He's seeing who could come closest — who could come closer to the 61-vote majority someone needs to have a ruling — have a government in the legislature.

    Then, April 24, seven days after those official result, he officially asks one man or the other to form a government. Now, it could be that he asks both of them to form a coalition government, and it doesn't have to be the person who has the most votes tonight.

    It could be the person — as long as it's the person that he thinks could get a majority in the legislature.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Absolutely. We will be watching in the next days and weeks. And we know you will be there.

    John Yang reporting live from Likud headquarters tonight, thank you very much.

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