Ellen Steel, Head of CFI Israel Office
The outcome of Israel’s fourth election in two years remains up in the air following another seemingly inconclusive outcome. Likud is projected to be the largest party by more than 10 seats, but there is currently no clear path to coalition for either Benjamin Netanyahu or the so-called anti-Netanyahu bloc.
Votes are still being counted across Israel, with hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots yet to be opened.
While the final outcome of the election will likely take some time to emerge, the Central Elections Committee announced last night that just 67.2% of eligible voters cast ballots in these elections, the lowest figure since 2009 – and an indication of growing weariness at the ongoing cycle of elections the country is stuck in.
With 80% of the votes confirmed as counted, Likud is projected to receive 30 seats, with the centrist party (and presumptive leader of the opposition or head of an anti-Netanyahu coalition) Yesh Atid receiving 17 seats.
Much of the early analysis has focused on the right-wing Yamina party, led by former Netanyahu chief-of-staff Naftali Bennett, which stands to pick up 7 seats and could play the kingmaker role in the coalition negotiations. The party could yet join either the pro or anti Netanyahu blocs to form a government.
During the election, Bennett had said he would not sit in a government with Netanyahu, and secondly, he signed a memorandum refusing to recommend Yair Lapid, Yesh Atid’s party leader, as Prime Minister, although he has not ruled out sitting in a coalition together. While these promises are conflicting, it enabled Bennett to hold his cards close to his chest and not reveal whether he was in the pro or anti Netanyahu blocs.
Last night, Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed victory and thanked Israeli citizens for giving a “huge win to the right and Likud under my leadership”. He added: “It’s clear that most Israelis are right-wing, and want a strong, stable right-wing government”.
However, Netanyahu still has roadblocks ahead of him before he’s potentially reinstated as Prime Minister. Each exit poll has predicted the pro-Netanyahu bloc falling short of the 61 seats required to form a government. As Israel awaits the final vote tally, it appears Netanyahu’s best option to form a coalition rests with him convincing Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party to enter into a coalition.
The 450,000 absentee votes to be counted from embassies around the globe, hospitals, army bases and corona facilities have the potential to increase and decrease vote share by 1 or 2 seats which can affect whether a party crosses the electoral threshold of 3.25% – and, therefore, could have significant implications on the ability to form a workable government.
Speaking to the press Bennett said, “I shall only do what is good for the State of Israel… a real right-winger doesn’t hate, he unites”. “We will act so Israel’s leadership moves from baseless hatred to free love. As a former Defense Minister, I can say that only a united nation can stand securely against its enemies”. Bennett called on his supporters to wait for the actual election results before declaring success.
Yair Lapid once again finds himself the second biggest party (Yesh Atid) and ultimately best placed to be the head of the opposition. Speaking at his party HQ, Lapid vowed to begin forming a “sane” government. President Rivlin may hand him the mandate to attempt forming an anti-Netanyahu bloc government, but the numbers fail to suggest this will have a successful outcome.
The conservative Islamist party Ra’am led by Mansour Abbas is currently hovering above the electoral threshold with an estimated 4 seats and could yet play its own role in the coalition building process. The move to bring Ra’am into a right-bloc coalition is likely to prove controversial and would add a significant, and unprecedented, complexity to the coalition forming process and the party has today indicated it would not join a right-wing coalition.
A disappointing night was had by New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar. New Hope entered the political race as Netanyahu’s key competitor tempting away some of Likud’s top politicians for their party list. Throughout the campaign Sa’ar’s polling dropped from the twenties to the tens and he’s now facing the reality of single digits with just 5-6 seats as his projected win. Speaking to supporters Sa’ar once again vowed not to sit in a Netanyahu-led government; “we did the best that we could under the circumstances”, he said, noting that it is a brand-new party actually making it into the Knesset.
In a surprising turn of events, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party who were predicted to not pass the electoral threshold managed to gain a projected 7-8 seats. The party who just two years ago were thriving in the polls and Netanyahu’s chief opposition managed to prove that although they had conceded and entered a government with Netanyahu, their supporters still believe in them and their ability to bring about change. Gantz said those who eulogised the party were premature: “We chose to fight, and we will continue to struggle for our values and remain part of the national leadership”, he said.
Labor, who have performed poorly in previous elections, have seen their new leader Merav Michaeli turn the party around and tempt lost voters back. With a projected 6-7 seats, Michaeli was celebrating her party’s return from near political death. “Many of you didn’t believe me, but I knew it could be done”, she said. “They managed to assassinate Yitzhak Rabin, but they didn’t manage to kill off his path”, she added.
The Central Elections Committee announced prior to the election that it would take them up to two weeks to count and verify all the votes. Delays due to Passover, an increase in polling stations and absentee votes were cited. President Rivlin will not meet with party leaders until all votes are verified, which means we will be eagerly waiting for two weeks before our next major update.
Regardless of unverified results, today has seen party leaders begin to negotiate their way to a 61-seat coalition. President Rivlin will most likely be handing the mandate to form a government to either Netanyahu or Lapid. The race has most certainly begun.