With nearly 97 percent of the vote counted on Wednesday, Netanyahu’s Likud party secured 30 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, the Israeli parliament. His coalition of right-wing and religious parties appeared to control 52 seats, leaving Netanyahu an easy path to obtaining a 61st majority.
Even adding seven seats controlled by former ally Naftali Bennett would not put Netanyahu at the top, dashing hopes in the prime minister’s camp that a conservative coalition is within reach. The prospect, suggested by polls published Tuesday night, cheered Likud headquarters and prompted Netanyahu to initially declare a “great victory” on Twitter.
But by the time he addressed his supporters after 2 am, however, early vote counting had begun to instead hint that more impasse would come.
He called for an end to the stalemate, saying, “We cannot in any way lead the country to a fifth election. We must form a stable government now.”
An attainable majority seemed equally difficult for the disparate set of anti-Netanyahu parties, ranging from disaffected conservatives to Arab-Israeli communists.
Initial results gave the anti-Netanyahu parties 57 seats, in addition to 11 seats controlled by two Arab factions. But in previous elections, these groups were unable to negotiate a power-sharing deal that would topple the prime minister.
Adding to the uncertainty is an unusually high number of absentee ballots from members of the military, diplomats abroad and people under quarantine under COVID-19 precautions. That 450,000 vote estimate, expected to count this week, could provide dramatic flips in the final count.
“These are very close elections,” said Johanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. “Nothing has been decided.”
Three previous elections in the past two years have failed to form a functioning government, and lawmakers are once again facing a period of intense bargaining as forces pro and anti-Netanyahu try to muster a majority.
Polls have shown that Israeli policy remains caught in a deep divide, especially over Netanyahu. For the fourth time in a row, voters were almost evenly split between voters wanting to get rid of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and those hoping to continue his 14-year rule.
The prime minister, who is facing a criminal trial on charges of bribery, fraud and other corruption, has failed to gain a majority in the previous three votes. Each time, he escaped the refusal of the opposition parties to join his ranks against him. In the previous vote, the center-left parties rejected the opportunity to form a majority by inviting the Arab faction to join their coalition.
Some observers are encouraged that Tuesday’s result may once again frustrate Netanyahu’s attempt to hold on to power by an outright majority. This comes in the wake of a campaign in which the prime minister and his allies sought to demonize his opponents and discredit the judicial system that is trying him.
“In many ways, these elections are a confirmation of the strength of Israeli democracy, in the face of a skilled politician’s attempts to subordinate electoral and judicial processes to his own political needs and avoid the legal fate that awaits him,” said Chuck Frelic, a former deputy national security advisor.
Bennett, the former Likud defense minister who split from Netanyahu to form his party, will still bring a lot of bargaining power that will begin. He did not rule out serving in Netanyahu’s new government, although the two former allies were said to hate each other.
But Bennett alone may not be enough to secure a slim majority for Netanyahu in the Knesset.
Another unlikely mediator appeared on Wednesday, a small Arab-Israeli party that could exert enormous influence on either side.
The United Arab Islamic Party received enough votes to cross the Knesset threshold by five seats. Party leader Mansour Abbas had defected with a larger group of Arab parties, in reference to this He was ready to deal with Netanyahu In exchange for more concessions and spending for the Arab minority in the country, which has a population of two million.
While it is unlikely that the Religious Muslims Party will join directly in Netanyahu’s coalition of right-wing Jewish nationalists, Abbas can help the prime minister by withholding any anti-Netanyahu majority. Conversely, he could throw his support in the other direction, and according to Israeli media, he has already agreed to meet next week with the leader of anti-Netanyahu parties, Yair Lapid.
“We are ready to hold talks with the two sides,” Abbas said on Wednesday in a radio interview. “If an offer is received, we’ll sit down and talk.”
Other winners are in the emerging vote totals, including parties on either end of the political spectrum. The left-leaning Labor and Meretz parties, who struggled in the last elections, won seven better seats than expected.
If Netanyahu is able to form a majority with these partners, political observers say he will be the most conservative in Israel’s history.
“Netanyahu will be in the hands of the most extreme elements,” Plesner said.
Israelis were skeptical that the fourth election would end the stalemate even as they cast their ballots. A working coalition appeared only once in the previous three competitions, and that was an impractical emergency “unity” government that was formed last year with the outbreak of the epidemic. It collapsed within months amid bitter infighting and the failure to pass the budget.
“It is unclear whether four election rounds have solved the longest political crisis in the history of Israel, with the country remaining as divided as it was for the past two years, and the fifth election remaining a very real option,” said Plesner.
Cunningham reported from Istanbul.