What happened: Based on exit polls late last night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on the verge of a dramatic comeback victory after Israel’s third election in the past 11 months. Netanyahu’s Likud party will almost certainly emerge as the largest party with a 3 to 4 seat lead over its main rival, Blue and White. All three news channels predicted Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc of parties winning 59 seats, two short of a 61-seat parliamentary majority.
- With 90 per cent of votes counted Likud has 36 seats, Blue and White 32, The Joint List 17, Shas 10, UTJ 7, Labour-Gesher Meretz 7, Yisrael Beitenu 7, and Yamina 6. These numbers could change once all votes are counted.
- Actual vote tallies will only be finalised by late afternoon at the earliest, and possibly tomorrow morning. Exit polls did not take into account ballots cast by soldiers and other “double-envelope” voters, or surplus vote agreements between the various parties – all of whom could prove crucial with the margins for a Netanyahu victory so narrow.
- In a late night speech, an ebullient Netanyahu called the results “a huge victory” and “massive achievement against all the odds.” He also vowed to form a “strong nationalist government” with his “natural partners” on the Israeli Right. Netanyahu added that it was time for national reconciliation and said he would be the prime minister for all of Israel’s citizens.
- Blue and White leader Benny Gantz was chastened, but did not concede defeat, highlighting that Netanyahu may still not have enough seats for a governing coalition, but adding that the results “were not what he had hoped for.” Gantz vowed that Blue and White would continue to stand up for its values, and that “even if the path is difficult, in the end we will prevail.”
- Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman, who may still hold the key to any Netanyahu coalition, tweeted last night that there would not be a fourth election but that he would also not serve in a government led by Netanyahu supported by the two ultra-Orthodox parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism).
- The leftwing Labour-Gesher-Meretz alliance was predicted to crash to 6 seats, with senior officials already calling for a change in leadership. Conversely, Labour leader Amir Peretz blamed Blue and White for running a lacklustre campaign.
- The Joint (Arab) List was predicted to win 15 seats, a very significant increase in support based on higher turnout in Arab communities and a possible surge in support from left wing Jewish Israelis.
- The pro-settler Yamina party was expected to lose support, winning only 6 to 7 seats.
Context: Whatever the final results, the election yesterday returned an overwhelming personal mandate to Netanyahu despite his corruption indictments and the imminent start of his criminal trial on 17 March.
- 36 to 37 seats for the Likud, as predicted, would be the best showing for the party under Netanyahu’s leadership and the highest vote tally for any single party since 2003.
- In contrast, Blue and White’s predicted 33 seats, while the same as last September’s election, was viewed as a failure given the gap with Likud and the incumbent’s formal indictment during the campaign for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
- Conventional wisdom publicly and in the media has it that “the people have spoken” in favour of Netanyahu and the Israeli Right. Yet the likely results indicate a nation still deeply divided in half between those supportive and oppose Netanyahu’s continued rule.
- If Netanyahu is indeed short of a 61 seat majority to from a governing coalition then he will likely require defections from the centre-left bloc – with the most likely candidates members of Blue and White’s right wing flank, Gesher leader Orly Levy-Abuksis, and possibly members of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu.
Looking ahead: The immediate task for the entire political system is to await final results. Once those come in then the various alignments will become clearer, with emphasis on how close the Likud is to a parliamentary majority (if it does not secure one outright).
- Pundits compared a possible 60:60 split between the two blocs to the results of the first election in April 2019, raising the spectre of a fourth election.
- Netanyahu last night laid out a series of campaign promises he vowed to uphold, including applying sovereignty over large parts of the West Bank (as part of the Trump plan) and signing peace deals with Arab states in the Middle East.