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CNN Live Event/Special

Polls Set To Close In Historic Israeli Election. Aired 4-5p ET

Aired March 23, 2021 - 16:00   ET



HALA GORANI, CNN INTERNATIONAL HOST: It is the fourth Israeli election in just two years, and the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting once again for his political future, hoping to cling on to power in a closely contested national election.

A decisive result tonight could bring an end to the longest political stalemate in Israel's history.

It is in the next few seconds the stroke of 10:00 p.m. in Israel, which means the voting has now ended, the exit polls are just moments away when we'll get the first glimpse, not always the very final look, but the first glimpse of the future of Israel's government and what it could look like.

Final opinion polls from the weekend showed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party finishing comfortably on top, but you need 61 seats, and uncertainty surrounding key potential allied parties promises to make forming a new government anything but straightforward, and no one party is expected to achieve an absolute majority.

Hadas Gold is at Likud Party headquarters in Jerusalem with the very latest as we await the first exit polling data.

Hadas, what is the mood at Likud Party headquarters tonight?

HADAS GOLD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hala, well, the Likud Party headquarters have yet to fill up with all of the supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu because polls have just closed as you noted, and we are actually just now getting in those first numbers from the three main broadcasters in Israel.

These are, I should warn you, exit polls so they are not official tallies, and they differ from each other just a little bit. And I should also warn you that sometimes in the history of these exit polls, they haven't necessarily matched up with the official numbers, but they are important here because they set the tone and the mood for what these parties tonight will be like whether there will be a celebration or a little bit more muted.

So let's get to the numbers right now. We've got them from all three channels from Channel 12. They gave Likud, the Netanyahu party 31 seats. That is five seats less than they did in the last election and the next closest party, the Yesh Atid Party, the centrist party led by the former TV anchor, Yair Lapid, he has 18 seats. Channel 13 has Likud, Netanyahu's party at 33 seats. Yesh Atid at 16 seats.

Kan, Channel 11 has Netanyahu's Likud Party at 31 seats, and Yesh Atid, Yair Lapid's party at 18 seats.

So these are actually a little bit higher than what some of the opinion polls were showing in the few days before the election took place. But we should keep in mind that though we have these numbers just now from how Likud -- Netanyahu's party did, that doesn't necessarily mean that he is the one, because what matters is the magic number of 61.

That is the number that Netanyahu needs in order to have a majority in the Parliament and to be able to continue governing as Prime Minister.

The numbers that we're actually going to be paying even more closely attention to soon as my producer start handing me more numbers as they continue tabulating them will be actually some of these smaller parties. Who are these parties that will sit with Netanyahu? Who will able to sit with them?

So we are getting just now first numbers coming in from Channel 12 tabulating for the seats that Bibi Netanyahu could have would be at 53 and those who would be sitting potentially against Netanyahu would be 59. However, there is an interesting party here. This is the Yamina Party led by Naftali Bennett. He has eight seats according to Channel 12.

And if I can do math correctly, I do think that would put him at over 61, so if according to Channel 12, Naftali Bennett of the Yamina Party would sit with Bibi Netanyahu, which so far he has said -- he hasn't said either way, which way he will go -- if the Yamina Party sits with Bibi Netanyahu, according to the Channel 12 exit poll, then Netanyahu may have that 61-seat majority. That's the question here.

We're starting to hear a little bit of applause in the background. Not sure if that's to this poll, we're starting to get more and more polls coming in, Hala.

But so far from this initial exit poll. Again, I must warn the viewers, this is just an exit poll. This is not the official numbers. We'll be getting those over the next hours and days as they get tabulated.

But so far, from this first exit poll from Channel 12, if Bibi Netanyahu can convince this party, Yamina Party to join him, to sit in a coalition, he may have those 61 votes.

But again, we're starting to get more of these numbers coming in. We'll start looking at them, tabulating them and we'll come back to you more in just a few minutes with more of these numbers.

GORANI: Right, and so Hadas, as you importantly point out, this is exit polling and of course it's a 120-seat Knesset, the Parliament in Israel. You need 61 seats in order to form a government.

And the big question is, will Benjamin Netanyahu be able to cling on to power? Another big question that people outside of Israel who are not so familiar with Israeli politics often ask is, why four elections in two years? What's going on in Israel?


GOLD: Well, what has happened is that we just continue to run into the problem of these coalitions not having enough of the votes and the real issue of what caused this election to be called again is the inability to pass a budget, and this is what is causing these elections to be called over and over again.

Some people are saying that this is perhaps on purpose on Netanyahu's part, but this is where the -- we're sort of in the political deadlock here. There's really no party who has been able to get a dominating majority.

We're getting some more numbers here, just to keep you updated, Channel 13 shows that -- Channel 13, is also showing that with that Yamina Party, Bibi Netanyahu could have those 61 seats he needs.

Now, this would be great news for Netanyahu, this would keep him in power. But of course, the question would be, if he can get that Yamina Party on board with him, and what would he have to give to Naftali Bennett, the leader of that party in order to make him sit with him and join him and have that governing majority?

GORANI: All right, Hadas Gold, thanks very much there with that breaking news reporting.

Hadas Gold is at Likud Party headquarters, of course the party of Benjamin Netanyahu, it is the fourth election in Israel in two years.

Benjamin Netanyahu there according to exit polling, depending on the data that you look at, so Channel 12 in Israel is projecting that Likud has achieved a 31-seat result. Channel 13, thirty-three, all within that 31 to 33-seat, projection, sort of window.

Let's go to Dahlia Scheindlin. She is here to help us work through these results. She's a political analyst and a fellow at the Century Foundation and she'll be helping us understand these exit polls.

And also, this is all happening, Dahlia, against the backdrop of COVID, against the backdrop of a new President in the United States, a new man in the White House, not necessarily as you know, warm in his relationship in his extended hand to Benjamin Netanyahu as Donald Trump was.

Help us -- what is your initial reaction to the numbers we're seeing in this exit polling that it's important to underline could still very much change.

DAHLIA SCHEINDLIN, POLLSTER AND POLITICAL STRATEGIST: It is important to underline we've seen in the past that exit polls have been close, but every seat makes a difference. If the final count, and we have lots of complicated distribution arrangements for surplus votes and vote sharing for excess votes from small parties, they could still go up or down.

But this is within the range of the final polls, Likud getting 31 to 33 seats. Let me remind viewers that this is three seats, if he gets 33, that's three seats lower than Likud's outgoing Knesset strength, which was 36 seats. So it certainly is good for Netanyahu, in terms of the overall result, especially if he gets that 61 which he may have with Naftali Bennett's party, but it is a loss from his outgoing Knesset strength if the numbers hold.

And I think that reflects the fact that there has -- there have been challengers to his leadership from the right. There are right-wing parties, you know, the breakaway from Likud, Gideon Sa'ar's party who has challenged him. There has been deep criticism of his handling of COVID, which was offset, of course, by the very successful vaccination rollout.

But I think the reality is that there's just a very strong constituency that has voted Likud for the last three elections and before that, and not very much has changed their mind, not the three counts of corruption for which the Prime Minister is currently standing trial, not the new President in the White House. Israelis are fairly assured that the U.S. is on Israel's side.

And you know, any other -- any number of other aspects related to Netanyahu's leadership. These are -- the voters are pretty set in their ways with regarding Netanyahu. They've had three chances before this to state their preferences. And so we're looking at essentially a repeat of the previous results up until now in terms of the pro and anti-Netanyahu blocs of parties.

GORANI: Can you explain Netanyahu's enduring appeal? And I'm noting, of course, that if this result is the one that ends up materializing, it is still a retreat from the current number of Knesset seats that Likud has.

But still, if Netanyahu is able to hold on to power, fourth election in two years, I mean, this is a man facing criminal corruption charges.

SCHEINDLIN: That's absolutely right. And that's why there's such a visceral of anger among the opposition parties. But let me answer your question about why people still support him.

I mean, for one thing, when you have a leader who has been in power continuously for the last 12 years, and he is the kind of leader who has consolidated power. At one time, he held up to five ministerial portfolios, and even when he has held fewer portfolios, he has generally taken the lead on some of the key ministries like the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Defense Ministry.

He has tended to do these things himself and undercut challengers within the government as well. So people attribute everything that happens in Israel to him.

[16:10:10] SCHEINDLIN: There is a self-reinforcing perception that he is the only

leader in the country and his supporters start from that point. And then they point to a list of his actions and his record that they consider an accomplishment.

For example, I think one of the biggest ones is -- let's just remind again, remember that his supporters are right-wing and in Israel, that means a Prime Minister who will not give in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In their perception, giving in means territorial concessions, and a two-state solution.

Netanyahu has managed to work around any pressure towards a two-state solution or any sort of political resolution to the conflict for 12 years, and they appreciate that.

They also appreciate his foreign relations. They're proud that he has advanced the Abraham Accords, the normalization accords with four different Arab states, and they think he's great on macroeconomic indicators, even if Israel suffers from severe economic equality.

They also, interestingly, think that the prosecution of Netanyahu for those three counts of corruption, which is so upsetting to the opposition, they view that as a form of political persecution, and some of them even rally to his side because of that.

GORANI: Right. Well, we saw lots of -- and long-lasting street protests as well against Netanyahu. We'll see if those restart regardless of what the result is.

Dahlia, please stand by because we'll get back to you very soon.

I want to get to Elliott Gotkine. He's at the Yesh Atid Party headquarters in Tel Aviv, the main challenger to Benjamin Netanyahu here.

Yair Lapid, his former Finance Minister, whose party, Yesh Atid according -- and again, two of the exit polling achieved anywhere between 16 and 18 seats.

Hadas Gold is still with us, of course, from Likud's headquarters. Elliot, I want to get to you first, what are you hearing where you are at Yair Lapid's party, Yesh Atid. What are you hearing as we digest these initial exit poll numbers?

ELLIOTT GOTKINE, JOURNALIST: Hala, I should say that in normal times on election night, you know, places like these, Yesh Atid's headquarters would be crammed with supporters, but because of COVID restrictions, and also because they've asked their supporters to stay away until later, there are no supporters here.

So that kind of the atmosphere if you like on that front. But as Hadas was saying, you know, we have got these first exit polls out, and we can now see what they are saying about the potential pro-Netanyahu blocs and the potential anti-Netanyahu blocs.

And according to Kan Channel 11 News, the pro-Benjamin Netanyahu bloc plus the right-wing Yamina Party headed by Naftali Bennett, looks to be on track for 61 seats. This is an exit poll projection. The anti- Netanyahu bloc with Yamina would be on 58.

Channel 12 News has the exact same projection and Channel 13 as well. So actually, all three, although for individual parties, they are projecting slight differences in terms of the number of seats for each individual party.

Their projections for the pro-Netanyahu blocs plus Yamina, and for the anti-Netanyahu blocs plus Yamina are actually all the same.

And the reason why we don't know which way Yamina is going to go is because Naftali Bennett has been very circumspect. You have had people like Gideon Sa'ar who broke away from Netanyahu's Likud Party to form New Hope, saying he will not sit in a government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Naftali Bennett has not made that pledge. The only pledge, in fact that he made and he was ridiculed in some parts was going on TV with a kind of contract that he'd signed saying he would not sit in a government underneath a Prime Minister, Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid.

But he didn't say he wouldn't sit in a government with Yesh Atid just without not with a Prime Minister, Yair Lapid.

So there are still a number of permutations. But of course, as Hadas was saying, and as we are continuing to reiterate, we must bear in mind that these are just exit polls, the final results may be largely different. Actually, the final results may not come out in a timely manner, as we've expected in previous years, because of the increased number of absentee ballots as a result largely of the COVID-19 pandemic and people voting in kind of COVID proof drive through polling stations on top of people in nursing homes, and then the normal absentee ballots you get from diplomats, soldiers, prisoners, and the like, as well -- Hala.

GORANI: And Hadas, from the outside looking in, this election looks more like a referendum on Netanyahu than a general election on the issues. Is that fair to say?

GOLD: Oh, that's completely fair to say. It was almost entirely a referendum on Netanyahu and whether you were for him or against him. Very little it seemed as though about other issues even you know, think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that was barely seemingly mentioned during this.


GOLD: And Netanyahu made this campaign mostly about vaccine rollout. If you think about the past election campaigns than Netanyahu ran, it was a lot about foreign relations, it was all about Trump. Donald Trump kind of was on billboards all over the country.

This time, Trump has completely disappeared, of course, and it's been all about the vaccination program. His campaign slogan was "Back to Life," literally, bringing Israel back to life, because over the last few weeks here, as the vaccine rollout has continued, Israelis can go to restaurants, they can go to hotels.

And while we've been waiting here for the action to start, they've been running campaign ads from Benjamin Netanyahu that's showing off him at restaurants, showing Israelis kind of unlike the rest of the world that's still under lockdown that Israelis can go about more or less their normal lives.

And he is taking complete credit for that. He's even using interviews with the Pfizer CEO. He talks about how Benjamin Netanyahu would call him at 3:00 a.m. in the morning asking about vaccines. That is what he is hinging this on.

He was also hitting this campaign on his normalization relations with different Arab countries. In fact, even earlier today, he tweeted out a video trying to tell the Israeli Muslim that soon, they will have direct flights to Mecca.

This is a new tactic from him, because in the past, Benjamin Netanyahu had actually been accused of trying to suppress the Arab world. He had been accused of fear mongering telling his supporters that the Arabs voters are coming out in droves as he did in 2015, and that they should get out to vote to stop that from happening.

This time, we saw billboards for Benjamin Netanyahu in Arabic calling him Abu Yair -- the father of Yair, which is an Arabic language way of embracing it. He was campaigning in these Arab chants. That was new.

So it was a very different campaign than what we've seen in the past. It was a more positive campaign than we've seen from Benjamin Netanyahu in the past. And if these exit polls do hold to the official results, which, as we've been saying, this will change. We will get more results.

We'll get the official results in a few days. They also will be delayed because of the COVID precautions being taken. Lots more people are voting in these special absentee ways, they are actually called double envelopes where your ballot is placed in these double envelopes. They take longer to count.

We also have the Passover Holiday coming up. But if these exit polls do hold, then it could mean that Netanyahu will have that governing coalition that he's not in -- which we should keep in mind -- I should remind our viewers that's also important for his corruption trials because Benjamin Netanyahu may also seek his immunity from prosecution, so keep that in mind.

GORANI: All right, Hadas Gold is at Likud Party headquarters, thanks very much for joining us.

We'll have a lot more after a break. And this is the fourth election as we mentioned in two years, more undecided voters than ever. Of course, it's happening against the backdrop of a global pandemic. And despite the fact that many more Israelis have been vaccinated than in other parts of the world. There were still social distancing issues, absentee ballots that will come in later, that will be counted later. So these exit poll numbers, we will have to be very careful about, but

as it stands, and according to these exit poll numbers, if there is the right coalition of parties supporting Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud, there could be for Benjamin Netanyahu, yet another extension of his political life.

Much more on the vote counting now underway that will decide the political fate of Israel's longest serving Prime Minister. We're live in Jerusalem ahead.



GORANI: Okay, welcome back to our breaking news coverage of the Israeli elections.

Vote counting is underway after the polls closed just a short time ago. It is currently -- I'm looking at my clock -- 10:21 p.m. across Israel. We don't have actual results. We have exit polling results from three Israeli TV networks, suggesting -- again, we have to underline that these are preliminary numbers -- but suggesting that it could be a good night at Likud headquarters.

The Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's party is projected to win the most seats in Parliament though not enough to govern on its own and this is the way Israeli politics work. You need coalitions.

But if you look at exit polling from both Channel 12 and Kan News, they suggest Likud could win 31 seats. The party with the next highest number is Yesh Atid with 18 seats.

Now, as I mentioned, this is Israel's fourth election in less than two years, which is unprecedented. Political parties win seats in the Knesset in proportion to their share of the vote. Neither of the top parties could form a majority coalition in 2019, and last year's election led to a national unity government, which was good for about seven months until it collapsed.

So we're on election number four and this year's election is taking place during a pandemic, will that have changed how voters feel especially given the success of Israel's vaccine drive?

I'm joined now by Karnit Flug. She is a former Governor of the Bank of Israel. She's also Vice President of Research at the Israel Democracy Institute. Hadas Gold is with us at Likud Party headquarters, and we'll get to Hadas in just a moment with more on preliminary reaction at Likud Party headquarters to some of this exit polling data.

Let's start with Karnit Flug. First of all, let's talk about the economy in Israel here because four elections in two years, lots of political uncertainty, add to that a pandemic. Where are we in terms of the economy in Israel?

KARNIT FLUG, FORMER GOVERNOR OF THE BANK OF ISRAEL: Well, in terms of actually the numbers for last year's contraction, they were more -- the contraction was more modest than what was expected before. The economy contracted by 2.4 percent, which was relatively better than what was expected.

I would say that the main problem is unemployment, which is now stands at 15 percent. That's down from 19 months ago at the peak of the third lockdown. And I think this is really the biggest challenge looking forward.

And the main unemployment is mostly of people with lower wages, lower skills, like everywhere else.

So the gaps -- economic gaps also expanded very much during the pandemic.

GORANI: And what do you make of how the government in place before it collapsed? There were big, big disagreements about the budget. I mean, these are big ticket items to disagree on in the midst of a lot of economic uncertainty. What's your take on that?

FLUG: Well, actually, the fact that there was no budget passed for this year and we're still working with a continuous budget of two years ago means that the government did not devise a work program to deal in the best way with the pandemic.

And I think that in order to actually have a program which would support the recovery phase, we have to have a budget that where the priorities are adjusted for the current state of the economy.


FLUG: And that would mean that we need to expand in a very big way the investment in infrastructure, training programs that would help people get back into the labor market, and reforms that would help the economy actually recover.

So I think we really need a big program, and it's very hard to set up such a program without a stable government.

GORANI: Is Hadas Gold still with us from Likud Party headquarters?

GOLD: Hi, Hala. Yes.

GORANI: Hadas, I was interested in hearing more about how Likud tried to reach out to Arab Israeli voters this time? You were telling me that in some campaign posters, they were calling Netanyahu Abu Yair, which is the Father of Yair, which is a way obviously to extend the hand to Arabic speakers.

Did that work? I mean, did Netanyahu -- was he able to reach some of those Arab voters?

GOLD: Well, we are going to -- we aren't necessarily going to see the numbers of that quite yet. But I mean, the Likud people are happy with this result tonight, because of that bloc that they will potentially have to get that majority. But you're right, that outreach to the Israeli Arab voters was new, it

was totally different. It was a totally different tone than what we had heard from Benjamin Netanyahu in the past.

And when some of these Israeli-Arab voters were interviewed and asked about this, part of the reasoning, perhaps about supporting Likud was, you know, why not get a seat at the table of power, rather than trying to change it from the outside?

Again, we will have to wait to see what the turnout says about how these voters actually voted for their parties. But when I went out and I interviewed some of these voters, they didn't necessarily express support for Likud, but they expressed a lot of frustration for some of the Israeli-Arab parties like the Joint List.

They said, listen -- one voter I spoke to said, listen, I voted for these people for so many years and we still have all of these issues, all of these problems.

One voter I spoke to said he was so frustrated, he is even going to vote with a blank ballot, which obviously could benefit potentially some of these other parties if there is a blank ballot there. We'll have to see as we get more of these numbers in, how the Israeli-Arab vote actually made by -- you're right, it is totally different to be driving down the road in Israel and see a giant billboard of Benjamin Netanyahu with Arabic script on it Abu Yair.

GORANI: All right, Hadas. We have new exit polling numbers, I'm going to go through those for our viewers before I get back to Karnit Flug.

The three Israeli TV networks Kan News, Channel 12, and Channel 13 each have separate exit polls as we've established for you. Now here's what Kan News projections of the potential coalition blocs look like right now.

Pro-Netanyahu 54, anti-Netanyahu 51, Yamina, seven; joint List, eight. A reminder, these are not CNN polls, these are exit polls produced by the Israeli news companies. They will be updated and adjusted as actual results come in.

But you know, there is one magic number and that magic number is 61. There are 121 seats in the Israeli Knesset. Right now, pro-Netanyahu bloc at 24. If he gets the Yamina support there in yellow, then that would put him at 61.

Karnit Flug, you were talking about how COVID and how the slowdown in the Israeli economy has highlighted inequalities. How do Israeli-Arabs factor in to that picture?

FLUG: Well, also before the pandemic, their participation rate in the labor market was relatively low, especially for our women, but also for our men, and following the pandemic, the high unemployment, which became even higher will make it very hard for them to reintegrate into the labor market.

They are disproportionately represented in some of the sectors that were hardest hit by the pandemic. And so that's one of the populations that will have hard time to actually getting back into employment. And we're going to see more poverty there because to begin with, their level of income was much, much lower.

GORANI: Karnit Flug, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate having you on here to help us navigate these numbers and the big economic issues facing Israel and all of its populations.

Hadas, stand by, we'll get back to Likud Party headquarters in a moment.

A quick break, when we come back, more on the Israeli election results or the preliminary exit poll results. We look at why this year's contest is so unique and what that means for the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who may or may not remain the Prime Minister.

We'll be right back.



GORANI: Well, breaking news this hour. We continue our special coverage, exit polls from Israel are predicting no clear winner in the country's election - that's not a surprise. The three Israeli T.V. networks, Kan News, Channel 12, and Channel 13 each have separate exit polling data.

Here's what Kan New's projections of the potential coalition blocks looks like right now. Pro Netanyahu at 54, you need 61 - as a reminder, in order to achieve a majority in the Knesset. Anti- Netanyahu parties at 51, Yamina at seven whether or not Yamina joins the pro Netanyahu block is a decisive (ph) question.

Joint list as you can see there at eight - these are not CNN polls, these are exit polls produced by the Israeli television companies and they will be updated and adjusted as the actual results roll in, as is the case in so many elections around the world.

Much like the last three contests this election can be viewed as a referendum on the prime minister, only this time the vote follows some of the most eventful months of Netanyahu's 15-year leadership. To begin with there's a global pandemic, after struggling to balance lockdowns and economic activity Netanyahu has presided over the world's fastest vaccine rollout - a huge success on that front.

Last summer he seemed poised to annex large parts of the west bank in accordance with Donald Trump's Mideast "peace plan," that initiative was overtaken by the Abraham Accord's historic deals with the UAE and three other Arab neighbors to normalize relations.


GORANI: Netanyahu lost a key partner though, internationally, when Donald Trump was voted out of the White House. President Joe Biden waited nearly a month after taking office to even call Netanyahu. It was a topic of discussion in Israel and around the world. Biden wants to revive the Iran Nuclear Deal, something Netanyahu stanchly opposes.

And finally, the Israeli prime minister is facing bribery and fraud charges in a trial now underway. He has pleaded not guilty, and he did so last month.

So, eventful for Israel, a huge change in the landscape - the political landscape around the world, especially with the new man in the White House, Joe Biden.

Let's return to Hadas Gold at the Likud party headquarters in Jerusalem. And now that we're seeing more of these exit poll results sort of confirm the very initial numbers, I wonder what you're hearing at Likud headquarters right now? What are people saying about this result? Is there optimism that Likud will achieve a coalition giving it 61 seats in the Knesset?

GOLD: Hala, I just actually heard from a Likud aid who I asked - when I asked them if they are happy, they said that they are happy. And I asked them if they thought that the Yamina party, the Naftali Bennett led party would join a Likud lead coalition that would - they need that Yamina party, as we have noted, to get them over that 61-seat line.

This aid said that they think it will come at a price, but that Naftali and the Yamina party will join them. The question of course will be what will that price be, and will it be enough for that party to join them? This is where the next few weeks come in to play.

This - even though we have had an election today the real work will now begin - these negotiations between these parties that could take weeks, but the Israeli president he hands a mandate over to whoever can form a government, and that's when the real work will begin.

So the question will be, what will Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Yamina party - what will he demand in order to sit with Benjamin Netanyahu? Will he demand a rotational prime minister like what we had that failed this last time?

Will he ask to be defense minister like he was before, this - as the Likud aid told me, this will come at a price but that they do believe - this Likud aid does believe that Naftali Bennett and Yamina will ultimately join Benjamin Netanyahu and his party (ph) and that will put them over that 61-seat majority.

Again, like we've said these are just exit polls - we are still waiting for the official results, these results can change. We are going to take - it's going to take a few days to get the full tallies, but that's the mood right now from the Likud party.

GORANI: Hadas, thanks very much. This is the projection from one of the main news channels which says Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party would get 31 seats with Yesh Atid gaining 18. You need the 61 in order to achieve a majority at the Knesset, though no single party as ever won that.

That's the system in Israel, it's a coalition system. Governments have always been formed that way. Those can often be contentious as we've seen in the impasse over Israel's budget which led to this election in the first place.

Yair Zivan is a Foreign Policy Advisor and Spokesperson for Yesh Atid, he's in Tel Aviv tonight. This is the party of (Inaudible). What is your initial reaction to these exit poll numbers putting you at anywhere between 16 and 18 seats. Some of the poll of poll (ph) figures that I saw, the latest ones before election day put you closer to 18, what is your reaction?

YAIR ZIVAN, FOREIGN POLICY ADVISOR & SPOKESPERSON, YESH ATID: Well we're still waiting for the final results, obviously these are just exit polls as you've said and we're just waiting now to see what the final results are. It's around where we expected, we had a strategy to make sure that all the smaller parties cross the threshold and we're pleased to see that that's happened.

We knew that that might cost us a few seats but that's OK because the important thing is who (ph) can build a coalition afterwards and we're waiting to see whether the real results will break our way like they did last time. This time last year, in the last election six, seven months ago the Likud were on 62 with their coalition now they're only on 61 so there's a long night ahead of us.

GORANI: It's a long night, but if Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud is able to form a coalition that will get him to 61 seats the strategy of having all these smaller parties ban together to try to push him out will have failed, is that a concern?

ZIVAN: Well it's a concern, but it's the same concern that it would have been from a week ago and a month ago - it's still far too early for us to tell what the situation is. And so we're far from concerned at this point, now we're just waiting as the votes come in. Exit polls in Israel have still got a lot of counting for the last few hours. We've seen in the last rounds of elections how much things can change.

So we'll wait, I think by about two or 3 o'clock in the morning our time here in Israel, we'll have a better idea of where the results are going. The final results we'll probably only have around Friday, and then the process will start -- and we hope that we'll be able to put together a coalition that will be good for Israel -


ZIVAN: -- the results are going, the final results we'll probably only have around Friday and then the process will start. And we hope we will be able to put together a coalition that will be good for Israel and that will represent the values the Yesh Atid has been pushing for, which is centrist liberal values that Israel really should be -- should be pushing.

GORANI: How -- how is -- several things. First of all, you have the global pandemic, now by all accounts the vaccine role out in Israel has been a stellar success compared to any other country in the world.

But you do have a big change in the worldwide political landscape. I mean you have Joe Biden in the White House right now versus Donald Trump who was very friendly with Benjamin Netanyahu.

How will that change things, do you think, in Israel; regardless of who ends up building a coalition?

ZIVAN: Well, I think President Biden is a great friend of Israel, I think the people around him are great friends of Israel. President Trump did some amazing things for the state of Israel, the moving of the embassy to Jerusalem.

But we're very, very confident that they'll be an excellent relationship if we're able to form the next coalition with President Biden and his administration. He has an unbelievable record in terms of his commitment to Israel security.

And so it's not really a concern for us at all. I would be slightly concerned if Prime Minister Netanyahu ended up building the coalition that he wants with the furthest most extreme right wing elements in Israel. I think that will put a strain on the relationship with the United States and with many other countries.

And so that's something that we certainly hope we'll avoid. But with President Biden, we know we have a real friend in the White House.

GORANI: Why is the Israeli-Palestinian -- why are Israeli-Palestinian talks not even a topic? Why -- why are they not an issue? What -- what happened with that?

ZIVAN: Well, I think the whole world is focused on the corona crisis. We've had over 6,000 deaths in Israel, which has been an unbelievable tragedy and really a terrible cost that we have paid. We have close to a million people unemployed and 90,000 small businesses closed.

So our first focus, whichever government is formed, the first focus is going to have to be on that. And that's what this campaigns been about. It's been about the corona crisis, it's been about the economy and it's been about the kind of liberal values and the way democracy in Israel is going.

That's been the focus of this election. So other issues are being pushed further back. I think that's true worldwide. In the United States the election was very much dominated by the corona crisis as well and I think that's natural when we have a pandemic of this scale.

GORANI: All right, Yari Zivan, the spokesperson for the party Yesh Atid. Thanks very much for joining us this evening. And as Mr. Zivan noted, these are exit poll numbers that we've been sharing with you. They can change. Lots of absentee ballots because of COVID.

So like in other elections that we've observed, when the absentee ballots are counted, often times you'll see a change in the final result. So that's what we are going to be waiting for in the coming hours and in the coming day.

We're going to take a quick break and after the break we'll continue with our special coverage of the Israeli election. Stay with us.


GORANI: Exactly one year ago today, the U.K. went into its first COVID-19 lockdown, 12 months later the prime minister is warning of a potential third wave of infections and says further restrictions may be necessary.

Boris Johnson addressed his nation today and advised Britains to hold off on booking international travel for now but he also thanked the country for its united effort in fighting the virus and offered words of encouragement.


BORIS JOHNSON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: This was unlike any other struggle in my lifetime in that our entire population has been engaged and it's thanks to all of you, therefore, that we can continue on our roadmap to freedom.

We will meet our targets offering a first dose to everyone over 50 by the middle of next month as well as those under 50 who are clinically vulnerable and offering a first dose of vaccine to every adult by the end of July.


GORANI: Well, across the U.K. there was a moment of silence. It was designed to reflect on the more than 126,000 lives lost. That number is staggering, 126,000 people have died of COVID in this country. This is one of the worst death rates in the world.

Worst, indeed, than the United States. That is, of course, despite the fact that in the last few weeks and months, the country has managed a rather relatively successful fast vaccine role out.

Now the prime minister called COVID a callus and invisible enemy. Phil Black has more on a year marked by both sacrifice and courage.


PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is a small moment in an extraordinary time. One day of reflection, one minute of silence. A desperately insufficient window for considering all that's changed and all that's been lost.

But within the pandemic's grip, this is a rare collective moment to pause and remember to try to understand how it came to this. Its one year since the unthinkable became the everyday.

One year since British life, with it's vibrant energy, it's wealth of shared joys and experiences was stripped back to something unrecognizable, far poorer, disconnected, lonely.

A year of knowing death is all around of relentless numbers failing to convene the glut of loss and suffering behind them. A time of grief where the rituals of grieving are twisted and stretched. The comfort of togetherness forbidden were simply beyond reach. UNKNOWN: (INAUDIBLE).

BLACK: Like so many essential human experiences, the sorrow of morning is now often shared and processed through images on a screen.

UNKNOWN: You keep going, yes.

BLACK: A year of COVID-19 renewed Britain's love for its health service and those who risk their lives preventing its collapse, whose faces show the strain of long exhausting shifts working to save others.

But a long year has started with publically celebrating their efforts on door steps, every week has evolved into a quite acceptance or worse; an expectation they will keep doing whatever is necessary regardless of the cost.

Other workers rarely considered in normal times have also found some appreciation for their vital roles and the risks of caring them out during a pandemic. While the virus has become another force, exposing ingrained inequalities to its disproportionate impact on people of color.


BLACK: After one year everyone knows the suffering imposed by the pandemic is not equal but everyone has suffered and lost something.

UNKNOWN: Hello, my darling.

BLACK: We've lost time. Especially time together. Opportunities to celebrate and feel joy, jobs, businesses, education. Psychotherapist, Julia Samuel, describes them as living loses.

JULIA SAMUEL, PSYCHOTHERAPIST: You feel frightened, you feel furious, you feel numb, you feel confused you feel in denial, you feel all the different things and you can feel them all at the same time. And yet, you look out of the window and nothing's changed.

BLACK: Britain's year of COVID is only one chapter in a global saga of incomprehensible change and pain that is still being written. One day of reflection is utterly inadequate but it's a start. Phil Black, CNN, Essex, England.


GORANI: Coming up more on our breaking news as Israel counts the votes. Who is ahead in the exit polls? Find out next.


GORANI: A reminder of our breaking this hour, exit polls from Israel are predicting no clear winner in the countries election. Voting ended about 45 minutes ago. The exit poll from ConNews suggests Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party is set to get 31 seats. Yesh Atid gain 18. The magic number, of course, in Israel is 61. That is a majority in the 102 seat Knesset. Let's return to Hadas Gold

at the Likud Party headquarters, the party of Benjamin Netanyahu and let's bring back as well, Dahlia Scheindlin from Tel Aviv.

Quickly to you first Hadas, and you've been speaking with Likud Party members. They're getting a slightly clear picture of what the results are starting to look like. What are they telling you?

GOLD: Well, Hala, as we've said over and over again, these are exit polls. These are not official results but the initial reaction is despite the fact that the Likud Party is down in seats compared to what they currently have in the Knesset, according to these exit polls, they're all 31 to 33 seats, which is less than what they have currently.

They are generally -- the Likudi that I've talked to said that they're generally happy about this because they do believe that Netanyahu will be able to get that coalition, that 61 seats with Naftali Bennett, who is currently the leader of the Yamina Party.

And we actually recently got a statement from Naftali Bennett telling -- he's not really said which way he will go but he says, "I will do only what is good for Israel." And he's not saying yet whether he will join Prime Minister Netanyahu but the sense I've gotten from a Likud aide that I spoke to is that they do believe that Bennett will join a Netanyahu government.

They said it will come at a price but they do think that he will join them. Keep in mind what this kind of government will look like. It will be very right wing and there are some very religious right wing elements that would potentially be part of this coalition.

Again, there's still a lot to be worked out here. There are still days, weeks, of negotiations to be had. But as of right now, as the Likudi told me, they're pretty happy.

GORANI: Dahlia Scheindlin, do you think Netanyahu is going to be able to hold on here?

SCHEINDLIN: He very well could hold on if the polls are correct that he has possibly 61 seats with Naftali Bennett. Naftali Bennett has tried to play a cool line, not stating clearly whether he will or won't go into a coalition with Netanyahu.

But it's pretty hard to imagine that if the choice is between going into Netanyahu's coalition or trying to forge a coalition with a group of parties who have essentially boycotted one another, which would probably result in a stalemate, lead the country to a fifth election.

I would imagine Naftali Bennett is most likely to go into the coalition with Netanyahu. Of course we do have to wait for the next couple of days when those final tallies and the vote sharing arrangements are calculated in because in the March 2020 election, it looked like Netanyahu's bloc -- his -- the bloc of parties loyal to him was also set to reach 60 or even 61. But then after the final tallies he went back down to just below 61, ending up with only 58. That is also a possibility. And -- so it does look like a decent night for Netanyahu. I can imagine his party is hopeful. I would imagine Naftali Bennett would go that direction but it's not definite.

UNKNOWN: We really need to know.

GORANI: All right. Well, there are many hours and potentially days ahead for Netanyahu, for his party and all the other parties to wait for final results to come in. Dahlia Scheindlin, thanks very much. Quick break. We'll be right back.


GORANI: Well, a long night is ahead in Israel after the fourth general election in two years. The votes are still being counted, the polls closed less than one hour ago. But we do have exit polling figures and so far they are suggesting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party is -- and -- and -- and the parties that will support him will achieve 54 seats, 61 seats are needed.

The Anti-Netanyahu Bloc at 51. If Yamina goes for the Pro-Netanyahu Bloc, they will get to 61. All of this preliminary. I'm Hala Gorani. Thanks for watching our special coverage of the Israeli election. There will be a lot more reporting from my colleagues across the country in the coming hours and days.

"THE SITUATION ROOM" with Pamela Brown is coming up next. Stay with CNN.