Likud party ballot papers and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's campaign fliers are seen on the ground after polls for Israel's general elections closed in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Final Israeli election results could boost Netanyahu's lead

April 11, 2019 - 7:42 am

JERUSALEM (AP) — The final ballots of Israel's election were being tallied Thursday, with another nationalist faction tantalizingly close to crossing the 3.25% electoral threshold needed to get into parliament.

Should the New Right party of Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked break in, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's comfortable parliamentary majority would grow even larger. The final result depended on the votes of soldiers, diplomats, prisoners and hospital patients who vote in unusual circumstances.

Israel's Central Elections Committee is slated to publish its final results later Thursday. With Bennett and Shaked so close, a recount and legal challenge is possible.

The New Right had one of the most disappointing performances of the election. The pair of popular pro-settler ministers split from their religious-nationalist Jewish Home party and sought greater power by appealing to new secular voters. The maneuver backfired.

But even with two other right-leaning parties failing to cross the threshold, and seeing their combined hundreds of thousands of votes go to waste, Netanyahu still managed to cruise to a relatively easy victory that secures him a fourth consecutive term in office, and fifth overall.

Netanyahu's Likud and the rival Blue and White party ended deadlocked with a projected 35 seats apiece in the 120-seat parliament. But Likud and its traditional Jewish ultra-Orthodox and nationalist allies were in command of a 65-55 majority in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

One of the major factors hastening Netanyahu's victory was the low voter turnout among Israel's Arab residents, which was below 50 percent.

Netanyahu's campaign against Arab politicians, together with a new alliance with anti-Arab extremists and the passage last year of a contentious nation-state law, which enshrined Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people alone, deepened calls for an election boycott in Arab communities.

Arab leaders accused Netanyahu of demonizing their sector throughout the campaign. Only a big push in the final hours of voting secured the survival of the two primary Arab parties in parliament. Still, they saw their representation dip, chipping away at the anti-Netanyahu bloc.

On election day, the predominantly Arab Hadash party filed a complaint that hundreds of Likud activists were monitoring Arab polling stations with hidden cameras. Israel's elections committee swiftly banned the cameras from polling stations, but Arab leaders accused Likud of intimidating voters. Netanyahu defended the practice, saying cameras helped guarantee a "legitimate" vote.

On Thursday, a public relations firm said it orchestrated the operation on Likud's behalf, distributing 1,200 hidden cameras, and claiming to have played a role in the suppressed vote.

"After a long preparation period, an amazing logistical base and deep and close partnership with the best people in Likud, we put together an operation that contributed crucially to one of the most important achievements of the right-wing bloc: Keeping the Arab vote legal," the PR company, Kaizler Inbar, wrote in a Facebook post, accompanied by a picture of firm executives alongside Netanyahu and his wife Sara. "Thanks to us placing observers in every polling station we managed to lower the voter turnout to under 50 percent, the lowest in recent years!"

Lucy Aharish, a prominent Arab media personality, said it definitely played a role and was "insulting" that the ruling party would spy on the voting of its own citizens.

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