By Tuesday morning, more than 90 percent of the ballots had been counted in Israel’s unprecedented third consecutive election, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was celebrating what he called a “massive victory.”
His right-wing Likud party was poised to celebrate the party’s strongest ever showing in an election, with 29.35% of the points, representing around 36 seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.
“We stood against vast forces. They already eulogized us. Our opponents said the Netanyahu era is over. But together we flipped the script. We turned lemons into lemonade,” Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, said in a speech Tuesday morning, according to the Times of Israel.
While the final vote tallies are expected to come in by Tuesday night, Netanyahu’s rival Benny Gantz and his Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) party were projected to win 26.34% of the votes, which could represent around 32 Knesset seats — a drop from the last election, where they secured 35 seats.
The Arab Joint list managed to remain the third largest party in the Knesset, by securing an estimated 15 Knesset seats, a bump up from their previous 13 seats.
While Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh praised the victory as “the beginning of the rise of a true left,” Israel’s coalition of left-wing parties were projected to win only six or seven seats, making it one of the smallest factions in the Knesset.
The other opposition party, Avigdor Liberman’s secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, won enough votes to secure around seven seats.
Meanwhile, the ultra-Orthodox parties secured a combined 17 seats, while Defense Minister Naftali Bennet’s religious nationalist Yamina secured six seats.
Bennet praised Likud’s majority win as a step forward for annexation, saying: “With God’s help today, the Israeli sovereignty [over the West Bank] government has been established.”
But even with nearly all the ballots counted Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition remained at 59 seats, two seats shy of the 61 seat majority needed to form a government, meaning that the premiere would have to reattempt, for the third time, to bring in members of opposition parties to form a governing coalition.
With no clear majority, there remains a real chance that Netanyahu and Gantz could fall into another deadlock, forcing Israel into a fourth election.
Once again, Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman is expected to play “kingmaker” in the election, though he remained adamant that his secular nationalist party would not join a Likud government that included ultra-Orthodox parties, nor would he joint a Kahol Lavan government that included the Joint List.
According to Haaretz, Likud lawmakers were already working on convincing center-left lawmakers from the Blue and White party to defect to a Likud government.
In one case, Haaretz alleged that Likud was threatening Kahol Lavan lawmaker Omer Yankelevich with the release of “embarrassing recordings by her party’s former strategic adviser” if she did not defect.
Even if Netanyahu is unable to cobble together a majority government, the likelihood of Benny Gantz doing so remained slim to none.
Whereas the Joint List previously endorsed Gantz in the last election, essentially as the lesser of two evils, the Arab parties denounced Blue and White’s “racism” this time around, and criticized Gantz for engaging in the same race-baiting tactics as Netanyahu.
In the unlikely scenario that Gantz could somehow get together a coalition that included the left wing parties, the Joint List, and Yisrael Beiteinu, he would still be one seat shy of the needed 61 seat majority.
Despite his bleak prospects, Gantz refused to concede, and remained optimistic in front of his supporters on Tuesday, floating around the possibility that Kahol Lavan could end up tying with Likud once all the ballots are counted.
As Israel awaits the final election results, very little of the country’s problems have been resolved by Monday’s election, including the legal status of Netanyahu, who has been charged with bribery and corruption.
Netanyahu has fought tooth and nail to remain Prime Minister, which would save him from going to prison if he is convicted of the charges brought against him.