No clear victor has emerged in Israel’s elections, with nearly 90% of ballots counted in Tuesday’s vote.
Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor his opponents appear to have a secure path to forming a majority coalition needed to win. The scales could tip as more votes are counted in the coming days.
“It’s a very close call,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute. “It looks like the most likely scenario is still continuing deadlock, continued paralysis.”
The election was Israel’s fourth in two years, a period marked by sustained political crisis in which Netanyahu, on trial for alleged corruption, has tried repeatedly to secure a firm grip on power at the ballot box. The country is split on whether Israel’s longest serving prime minister should stay in office after 12 straight years in power.
If no party succeeds in the coming weeks to convince at least 61 lawmakers to join a majority coalition in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, Israel could hold unprecedented fifth elections in August.
At Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party election night headquarters, balloons were suspended from the ceiling waiting to cascade down in the event of victory. But there was no balloon shower as Netanyahu delivered a speech to his supporters.
He cited a “great accomplishment” for the party, appearing to have won around 30 seats in parliament, more than any other party. It was not enough for him to win a new term.
He appealed to opposition parties primarily on the right to join him in a coalition, laying out a policy vision that they would support, from opposing an Iranian nuclear weapons program to supporting Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank to expanding diplomatic agreements with Arab countries. But these elections were less about issues and more a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership.
A new kingmaker in Israeli politics could be Mansour Abbas, the leader of the United Arab List, a conservative Islamist party, who broke with past tradition and said he would be willing to support Netanyahu.
“He could be the man who decides what government is here. That’s what he wanted to change, this line of thinking that we the Arabs are always with the center left,” said Afif Abu Much, a Palestinian political commentator in Israel, speaking on Israeli public television.
It appears unlikely that Netanyahu’s right-wing Jewish nationalist allies would be willing to form a government with support of an Arab party. The alternative, a government of anti-Netanyahu parties from left, right and center, would also be unlikely because of their own ideological differences and because they would also need to rely on Palestinian Arab parties to govern. In both camps there are Jewish lawmakers who refuse to cooperate with Arab parties.
No matter who forms the government, prominent far-right Jewish activists — promoting anti-Arab racism and opposing LGBTQ rights — appear to have made it into parliament for the first time. Netanyahu encouraged these fringe parties to form a coalition with a more established Jewish nationalist party to shore up his right-wing base and help him win a majority in the election.
“In the past he very much made sure that those forces remained in the margin, I mean, he made sure not to include them in his governments,” Plesner said. “Today, Netanyahu was the key, played a key role in bringing them through the front door into mainstream Israeli politics.”
The path to a government is long. Israel’s president must consult with the parties and decide by April 7 which lawmaker has the best chance of forming a government. That candidate gets a month and a half to negotiate with parties and try to form a coalition. If that candidate fails, a majority of lawmakers can rally around an alternate prime minister candidate, who would have two weeks to try to form a coalition. If the alternate candidate fails, new elections are triggered.