Benjamin Netanyahu is set to form another governing coalition and enjoy his fifth spell as Israel’s prime minister after voters gave his Likud party the parliamentary platform it needed to continue in power.
Despite diverging exit polls following Tuesday’s vote, by Wednesday most votes had been counted, and both Likud and the party of Netanyahu’s main challenger – Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz – were expected to win 35 seats each.
Tuesday’s Israeli election was widely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu, whose indictment on corruption charges was recommended by Israel’s attorney-general six weeks ago, after a two-year police investigation.
The election, in which more than 40 parties challenged, was one of Israel’s tightest in a generation, pitting the incumbent “King Bibi” against the straight military laces of the three former IDF Chiefs of Staff and the IDF’s first female Major-General.
However Blue and White (B&W), which declared victory on Tuesday night and thanked Netanyahu for his service, is now set to lead Israel’s opposition, despite the final result not being known until Thursday, when soldiers’ votes are counted.
“Netanyahu is on his way to forming another right-wing government, with a clear majority and far-right members, perhaps in significant ministerial positions,” said Dr Nimrod Goren, director of the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies (Mitzvim).
Emeritus Professor Colin Shindler from SOAS, University of London, said the large turnout for B&W and Likud signalled “a return to two-party politics and a swing from the far-right to the centre-right”.
Shindler said: “The electorate placed security and economic well-being above any moral judgement of Netanyahu – better the devil you know syndrome.”
B&W is a merged group jointly led by ex-IDF chief Gantz and former TV presenter Yair Lapid, who served as finance minister under Netanyahu until 2014, after forming the Yesh Atid party and winning 19 seats in his parliamentary debut.
Gantz and Lapid had agreed to alternate in the role of prime minister if they were tasked with forming a governing coalition for the next five-year term, but analysts always warned that this would be difficult given the parliamentary arithmetic.
The task of forming the next government – a process of horse-trading that can take several weeks – is constitutionally offered by the Israeli president, currently Likudnik Reuven Rivlin. His job is to offer it to the politician he judges best able to build a ruling coalition comprising at least 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
That is set to be offered to Netanyahu, who is more acceptable to a posse of smaller Orthodox, right-wing and religious-nationalist parties. This week’s vote saw the biggest ever share of seats for Orthodox parties – 16 in total – and a drop in seats for Arab parties compared to the last election in 2015.
Netanyahu’s legal woes mean new parliamentarians will be asked to protect him from prosecution, but Shindler warned that “potential coalition partners from the small parties will exact a high political price for passing an immunity law”.
One of the night’s biggest losers was Zehut, a right-wing libertarian party led by Temple Mount agitator Moshe Feiglin who was banned from entering Britain in 2008. With populist policies such as the legalisation of cannabis, he was expected to get four or five seats and play kingmaker, but instead failed to make the cut.
Likewise the New Right also failed to reach the parliamentary threshold of 3.25 percent. Led by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who broke away from the Jewish Home, they had been hoping the strength of their personalities would be enough.
The two big Orthodox parties are natural Netanyahu allies. United Torah Judaism and Shas have both previously served in his governments previously, and have refused to serve with Lapid, who has called for an end to the Charedi IDF exemption.
Almost 200 progressive British Jews watched the election results come in at the JW3 culture centre in Finchley, listening to a panel of Israeli and Palestinian experts convened by Yachad, New Israel Fund and One Voice.
Reacting to the results, Yachad director Hannah Weisfeld said: “Whilst we may be set to witness the formation of another Netanyahu led government, a significant number of people in Israel voted for change and this is a reason to remain hopeful.”
Indeed, Gantz and Lapid have reason to cheer. B&W outperformed all expectations, with its promise to clean up Israeli politics, impose a three-term prime ministerial limit, amend the contentious Nation-State Bill, allow civil marriage, expand egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, invest in education and health, and bring women and Orthodox Jews into the workplace.
The other big story of the evening was the dissolution of the Labor party as a political force, managing only six seats, while low Israeli Arab turnout also reduced the Arab bloc’s ability to swing events.
Although Gantz has ruled out governing with Netanyahu, there remains an outside chance of a “national unity government” – not seen in Israel since the 1908s – if Netanyahu feels that he is ceding too many ministries to smaller parties.
Israel’s ultimate “political survivor” may yet extend a hand to his former military chief given that, for the first time in recent elections, the two biggest parties could now form a government on their own. That which is ruled out on the campaign trail isn’t ruled out.