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Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu likely to stay in charge, but centrists’ strength surprises

Israelis voted Tuesday in an election that’s widely expected to hand Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a third term, but with a coalition far less stable than one he’s enjoyed in recent years.

Early exit polls found a bloc of right-wing parties with a very slim majority of 61 or 62 seats in Israel’s 120-member Parliament, while moderate forces did better than expected.

The polls released by Israel’s three largest television stations showed Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition of the Likud and Israel Beiteinu parties winning 31 seats, followed by the new centrist movement, Yesh Atid, also known as “There Is a Future,” with 18 or 19 seats. The left-leaning Labor Party stood in third place with 17.

The staunchly pro-settlement Jewish Home party, which had been projected to take second place in the Parliament, ended up disappointed, with only 12 seats.

Israeli news websites spoke of a "humiliating defeat for Netanyahu," as Israel’s Army Radio ran a segment titled "The Demise of Netanyahu."

"The polls we have seen during the elections are way, way off,” said Steven Miller, an Israeli pollster and political analyst. “The Likud-Beiteinu is going to get far fewer seats than they wanted. He will be prime minister, but it will be a coalition that is very difficult to control, and it is unlikely to last very long."

Miller said that several Cabinet ministers loyal to Netanyahu were unlikely to return to office, and that tempers would quickly flare within Likud over why it had failed to win the 45 to 48 seats that pollsters had predicted months ago.

"Fingers will be pointed over why the Likud didn’t run a more active campaign and address the socioeconomic concerns of voters," said Miller. "That concern is going to ignite what will be an internal struggle in Likud and eventual internal challengers to Likud."

Another pollster who’s affiliated with the Likud Party gave McClatchy similar numbers, calling the figures shocking.

"We are awaiting the final, official results, but what we’ve seen has been very concerning," said the pollster, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to journalists about his results.

He said that a combination of unseasonably warm weather and active social-media campaigns had brought voters out in unusually high numbers, especially in urban areas, where they were more likely to vote for centrist and left-wing parties.

"That high turnout has led to higher results than we expected for the centrist parties," the pollster said.

The surprise winners are Yesh Atid, a centrist party founded by television personality Yair Lapid, and the Labor Party, each of which rose in the polls to 17-19 seats. Previous polls had them trailing the pro-settler party Habayit Hayehudi, or Jewish Home.

Israeli political analysts said Netanyahu was still likely to form a coalition with Jewish Home and Yesh Atid.

"All that matters is that Netanyahu returns as prime minister," said Chaim Mazuz, a 42-year-old Likud Party activist.

Mazuz said he’d hoped for more, but as Israeli television aired its first polling results, he switched from shouting, "Forty mandates for Netanyahu," to "We’ll celebrate with 30."

At Likud Party headquarters in Tel Aviv, a large auditorium that had been prepared for thousands of party activists held fewer than 100, as desperate chants of "We won! We won!" were drowned out by "Next time we will do better."

Many of the Likud activists pointed fingers at Israel Beiteinu, saying it had been a grave error for Likud to merge with the party led by former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who was indicted last month on charges of fraud and breach of trust.

"Where are they? Where are their votes?" asked Shaul Mizrachi, a Likud activist who’s supported the party for 20 years. "I look around this room and I see no one from Israel Beiteinu. They were supposed to make our party stronger, and instead they made us weaker."

Israeli political analysts said they feared that the Israel Beiteinu faction within Likud might be the first to split from the party.

"There will be a lot of factions, a lot of questions of what went wrong," said Miller.

Across Israel, voters who gave interviews to Israeli radio and television stations spoke of shifting their votes away from Netanyahu in recent days.

In Tel Aviv, Shoshi Baran took her bathing suit with her to the ballot box, as she planned to head to the beach to celebrate the unseasonably warm weather and what she called "a difficult decision."

"For most of the campaign I thought I was going to vote for Netanyahu, and at the last moment I changed my vote to Yesh Atid, and I feel really good about it," she said.

Moshe Samir, a 27-year-old taxi cab driver, said he’d also thought of voting for Netanyahu but had changed his vote at the last moment to Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party.

"Lots of my friends have gone off Netanyahu,” Samir said. “It felt like he couldn’t even be bothered to campaign properly."

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