JERUSALEM (AP) — Though he appears to have come in second in the race for Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu said he will seek the formation of a coalition “Zionist” government that excludes Arab parties.
Netanyahu addressed a small crowd of supporters in Tel Aviv at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, more than five hours after voting ended.
Initial exit polls placed challenger Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party just ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud, hurting Netanyahu’s chances of remaining prime minister.
Exit polls are often imprecise, and Netanyahu said he would wait for official results before making conclusions.
But he said he would not allow the formation of a new government with Arab partners. He said: “There will not be and there cannot be a government that leans on Arab, anti-Zionist parties.”
Netanyahu’s campaign repeatedly questioned the loyalty of Israel’s Arab citizens.
Gantz said early Wednesday it was too early for him to declare victory in national elections. Addressing supporters in Tel Aviv, Gantz said he’s already begun talking to potential allies. He made no mention of Likud.
“I am ready to speak to everyone,” he said.
Turnout Tuesday was 69.4%, according to Israel’s election commission, a slightly larger number than the first round in April. Parliament then voted to dissolve itself when Netanyahu was unable to form a majority coalition.
The kingmaker in Israel’s election, Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the midsize Yisrael Beitenu party, says there is only “one option” for the country: a unity government between him and the two largest parties.
In a speech to his supporters, Lieberman said the only choice is for the two large parties to join him in a broad, secular coalition that would not be subject to the demands of ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties.
Israeli polls are often imprecise. But if final results are similar, Lieberman’s call would set the stage for complicated negotiations.
A senior Palestinian official said he hopes the next Israeli government “will focus on how to make peace.”
Saeb Erakat spoke as exit polls showed Netanyahu falling short of a majority, potentially spelling the end of his decade in power.
In the closing days of his campaign, Netanyahu vowed to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank, which Israel seized in the 1967 war and which the Palestinians consider the heartland of their future state.
Erakat said Israel “cannot have peace or security without ending the occupation, without two states, the state of Palestine to live side by side with the state of Israel in peace and security on the 1967 lines.”
The peace process broke down shortly after Netanyahu was elected in 2009, and no serious talks have been held since then.
The leader of an alliance of Arab parties that exit polls indicate will be the third largest bloc in Israel’s next parliament called it an “historic” moment for the minority, which has long complained of discrimination.
Initial exit polls indicate the Joint List won around a dozen seats in the 120-seat parliament.
Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List, said that if the final results match the exit polls, Arab voters will have “prevented Netanyahu from forming a government.” Netanyahu had repeatedly warned his supporters about large Arab turnout, using language that was widely seen as racist.
Arab citizens make up around 20% of Israel’s population and largely identify with the Palestinians.