Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud won Israel’s third election in the past 12 months on Monday but not by enough to escape the likelihood of a fourth vote this summer.
The anticipated apathy did not transpire, with the highest turnout in years, and despite the majority of Israelis voting for parties opposed him, Netanyahu still produced a proverbial rabbit from the ballot box, winning 36 out of 120 seats.
Blue and White, the main opposition party jointly led by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, won 33, while a last-minute surge towards the voting stations from Israeli Arabs meant that the Joint List registered 15 seats, their best results ever.
The two strictly Orthodox parties registered 16 seats between them, with Shas bagging nine and UTJ seven, as right-wing secularist party Yisrael Beitenu, led by former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, also won seven seats. Lieberman has vowed never to enter into coalition with the strictly Orthodox, which Netanyahu needs to form a government.
The right-wing national-religious bloc Yamina, which featured former settler leader and current Defence Minister Naftali Bennett, won six seats, while the far-right Jewish Power party failed to win any, since it did not meet the 3.25 percent threshold.
Any coalition led by Netanyahu would include his allies Shas, UTJ and Yamina, but they only won 58 seats between them. A majority of 61 is needed to govern.
This means that the leaders of Likud will now need to sit down with the leaders of Blue and White once again to try to form a unity government. Similar efforts failed late last year over the same sticking point – Netanyahu’s insistence on leading it.
In the latest electoral slip for Israeli liberals, the country’s combined left-wing and centre-left grouping managed only seven seats. It marks another fall from grace. Less than five years ago, left-wing and centre-left parties won 29 seats.
Although Netanyahu is due in court in two weeks’ time, the prime minister still reversed gains made by Blue and White in September last year, in part by suggesting that ex-army chief Gantz had mental health issues, was “not a leader,” and would be “beholden to the Arabs”.
Speaking at an election rally after exit polls suggested his unlikely win, Netanyahu said: “We stood in front of strong forces. They told us we are going to lose, that it was the end of the Netanyahu era. We turned lemons into lemonade.”
Ironically, despite a terrible campaign, Gantz may still end up leading the country if justice officials rule in the coming days that it would be “improper” for a prime minister to continue serving while under indictment.
Netanyahu’s refusal to resign and the lack of legal precedent means that the current situation is untested in law. Both the Supreme Court and the Attorney General were reluctant to rule on it before the election, but will now have to do so, meaning that Israel’s longest serving PM may soon have to bow out on the back of a victory.