After a night of drama during which the fate of incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed uncertain, all right-wing parties have now vowed to support his bid to form a new government.
Yet two high-profile figures from the current government look likely to be absent from the upcoming negotiations – Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, whose New Right (Hayemin Hehadash) party is unlikely to cross the 3.25 per cent minimum threshold needed to win a seat in the Knesset.
A night of drama
Despite all the predictions that yesterday's election could be a close call, last night proved to be dramatic beyond all expectations. Initial exit polls released when polling stations closed at 22:00 local time (19:00 GMT) showed that Netanyahu had lost his premiership, with his biggest electoral rival, Benny Gantz, beating him to the top spot.
However, as the first waves of official vote counts began to trickle in, Netanyahu's Likud party gradually regained its lead over Gantz's Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) alliance. With 95 per cent of the votes now counted, Gantz and Netanyahu are tied on 35 seats. However, when the performance of other parties is taken into consideration, the right-wing bloc has secured significantly more seats than the centre-left bloc, meaning a Netanyahu-led right-wing coalition will likely form the next government.
Right-wing parties have backed Netanyahu
As expected, almost all of the right-wing parties have vowed to support Netanyahu's bid to become prime minister for a fourth consecutive term. At the time of writing, these parties include:
- Shas: Third place behind Likud and Blue and White was Shas, the ultra-Orthodox party mainly made up of Mizrahi (Middle Eastern Jewish) supporters. Shas gained 6.10 per cent of the vote, giving it eight seats.
- UTJ: Fourth place was United Torah Judaism (UTJ), an alliance of two Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox parties Degel HaTorah and Agudat Yisrael. UTJ gained 5.9 per cent of the vote, also giving it eight seats.
- Yisrael Beiteinu: Seventh place was Yisrael Beiteinu, which is led by former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Though initial exit polls suggested the party may not cross the minimum threshold, Lieberman's faction proved resurgent throughout the night. It currently holds 4.15 per cent of the vote, or five seats.
- URWP: Eighth place was the Union of Right Wing Parties (URWP), a far-right alliance comprised of the Jewish Home, National Union and Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) parties. The URWP won 3.66 per cent of the vote, giving it five seats.
- Kulanu: Tenth place was Kulanu, headed by current Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. With 3.56 per cent of the vote, it now has four seats.
When the seats won by each of these parties are added to Likud's 35, the right-wing bloc has 65 seats, giving it sufficient numbers to form a majority government in the 120-seat Knesset.
Several of these parties had vowed in advance to back Netanyahu if he were re-elected, including Shas and UTJ which said they would support the incumbent prime minister despite his pending corruption trial.
Likewise Netanyahu orchestrated a deal with the URWP, under which the alliance would be granted two cabinet positions in return for bringing the Otzma Yehudit party under its wing. Otzma was previously marginalised even by right-wing parties for its extremist views and links to the banned Kach party of rabbi Meir Kahane, but Netanyahu was keen to bring it into the fold to ensure that any votes cast for the party were not lost. The URWP has today demanded the justice and education portfolios, though cabinet positions will not be officially announced for several days.
Less certain was the support of Kulanu – which shares a number of ideological positions with Gantz's Blue and White alliance given its centrist outlook – and Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu. Conflicting reports have emerged about Lieberman's allegiance, with some reports stating he would not recommend Netanyahu as prime minister, nor would he sit in government with the ultra-Orthodox parties. Lieberman has long been engaged in a bitter feud with the Haredim, pushing the Haredi draft law through the Knesset in a bid to see the ultra-Orthodox community conscripted into the Israeli army.
However, Lieberman seemed to imply today that he would consider joining a Netanyahu-led government, saying: "The existing options are joining Netanyahu's government or staying in the opposition." Lieberman is in a strong position to extract concessions from Netanyahu in return for his support, since, if Yisrael Beiteinu's five seats are not counted in the right-wing bloc, Netanyahu would be one seat short of a majority government.
Bennett and Shaked face political extinction
Two notable figures missing from the above calculations are Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who broke away from the Jewish Home party to form the New Right (Hayemin Hehadash) party in December.
Despite Bennett and Shaked's boasting that their new faction had huge potential and could rival Netanyahu's Likud, the New Right now looks unlikely to cross the 3.25 per cent minimum threshold needed to win a seat in the Knesset. With 95 per cent of the votes counted, the New Right has won only 3.14 per cent, some 4,300 votes under the threshold.
There is a small chance the party could be saved when the final result comes in, as the votes of soldiers – who cast their ballot from army bases in advance of the election – as well as overseas diplomats, prisoners and hospital workers have yet to be added to the final tally. These voters are usually right-leaning, but given that they amount to only an additional 200,000 ballots, 2.15 per cent of these would need to be cast in favour of the New Right in order for them to pass the threshold.
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Bennett has issued a somewhat forlorn statement in the wake of the results, saying: "All my life I gave everything I could for this good nation. I've always been a soldier of the state — in [elite Israeli army unit] Sayeret Matkal, as a high-tech entrepreneur, as education minister and in the security cabinet during Operation Protective Edge [Israel's 2014 war on Gaza]. Now, the soldiers will decide where I will continue to fight for them."
Shaked meanwhile has blamed Netanyahu for the party's poor performance, saying in a video posted on Twitter that "we [the New Right] are in a bad situation. Bibi [Netanyahu] is drinking us with a straw as if he is not already the prime minister, and [Jewish Home head Rafi] Peretz is also draining us. This is working too well."
This "cannibalising" of the New Right has paid off for Netanyahu. Though some commentators speculated throughout the night that his calls of "gevalt" – a tactical cry of distress used by Netanyahu to drive right-wing voters to the polls in support of Likud – could backfire and leave too many small right-wing parties short of the threshold, thus endangering his chances of a bloc majority, in fact this manoeuvring has simultaneously secured his re-election and rid him of two outspoken, and at times openly hostile, ministers.
What now for the centre-left?
Despite the scenes of jubilation that emerged from the Blue and White party headquarters as initial exit polls were released, Gantz's party will now have to carefully calculate its next move. Though he is still tied with Netanyahu, as had been predicted over the past few months, the absence of a solid centre-left bloc could ultimately prove to be his undoing.
Gantz's performance has been hailed a victory even if he is not tasked with forming the next government; having come from political obscurity just months ago, his exponential rise and strong showing has, for some, shown that an alternative to Netanyahu exists and can gain traction. However, Gantz has found himself with a lack of allies who could support his government, a situation not helped by his vow to work only with "Jewish and Zionist" partners.
This promise effectively cut off the option of working with the Arab-Israeli alliances, which expressed an openness to working with Gantz, albeit with strict concessions. Feelings among the Arab-Israeli alliances will likely be mixed this morning, after they were yesterday forced to frantically rally voters who chose to boycott or stay at home. The alliances' performance will also require some unpacking in the coming weeks: the Hadash-Ta'al alliance holds six seats at the time of writing, while Ra'am-Balad holds four.
Though this will have come as a relief given the fact that several exit polls predicted Ra'am-Balad would not cross the minimum threshold, the alliances' combined ten seats is still less than the 13 held by the now-defunct Joint List.
Also losing seats was Israeli Labor, which suffered the worst performance in its history. Once the dominant party in Israel, its dramatic fall from grace has left the party with only six seats in the upcoming Knesset, a third of the 18 seats it currently holds. Head of the party Avi Gabbay said of the result: "It's not easy. It's not easy for us and not easy for me. This is not the way I had hoped to end this evening. [The results are] a huge disappointment and a real blow to our electoral power."