Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel held a significant lead in his third electoral showdown with former army chief Benny Gantz, and was close to an outright parliamentary majority, exit polls showed Tuesday morning.
The polls showed Netanyahu, who faces trial in two weeks on felony corruption charges, just two parliamentary seats away from forming a government, winning a record fifth term in office and breaking the political logjam that has paralyzed Israel for more than a year.
But that also would set the stage for a possible constitutional showdown between Israel’s political and judicial power centers over whether Netanyahu is able to form a government while under indictment.
Israeli exit polls have been unreliable, but all three television networks gave Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious coalition 59 seats in the Monday election, two shy of a majority in the 120-member Parliament.
That plurality, if it holds up, would give him the first chance to assemble a majority coalition, but he would have to peel off two seats from other parties to do so.
Actual results were expected to dribble in during the morning Tuesday.
Gantz and his allies on the center-left, including the predominantly Arab Joint List, appeared to have won 54 or 55 seats, depending on the survey.
Gantz vowed to fight on, urging supporters in Tel Aviv to wait for official results and reminding them that Netanyahu would soon be “sitting in the defendant’s chair.”
But he acknowledged the sting of the exit polls. “I understand and share the feeling of disappointment and pain,” Gantz said early Tuesday. “It’s not what we wanted to happen.”