The World

Israel’s Right Wing Won the Election, but Can It Get a Majority?

An Arab party could decide whether Netanyahu holds a workable coalition.

Sara waves to the crowd as she stands next to Benjamin Netanyahu, who is at a podium
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his wife, Sara, at his party’s campaign headquarters in Jerusalem early Wednesday. Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images

In terms of ideology, Israel’s election results yesterday sent a pretty clear message: With about 90 percent of the vote counted, it appears that right-wing, religious, and pro-settlement parties will hold around 72 seats in the 120-seat Knesset—grim news for remaining hopes of a two-state solution and the future of secular democracy.

But this election was less about ideas than about the fate of one Benjamin Netanyahu, who would be a polarizing figure even if he weren’t currently on trial for corruption. Therefore, the day after the vote, nobody has any idea what’s going to happen.

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The election was Israel’s fourth in just two years, and like its predecessors, it does not appear to have produced a clear winner. Early exit polls on Tuesday showed a narrow but feasible path to a majority for Netanyahu, prompting him to declare victory in a speech at 2:30 a.m., but the picture became a lot murkier when live results starting coming in. (Israel exit polls are notoriously unreliable, but in the past they’ve tended to underestimate Netanyahu’s support.) As it stands now, Netanyahu’s Likud has 30 seats. Throw in his ultra-Orthodox and far-right allies and he’s at 52. It’s conceivable he could get the right-wing Yamina party led by his erstwhile ally Naftali Bennett to join him, but that still only gets him to 59. (Israelis vote for party lists rather than individual candidates.)

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Alarmingly, a Netanyahu coalition would be likely to include the Religious Zionist Party, an alliance of far-right parties which includes Otzma Yehudit, a rebranding of a violent, extremist anti-Arab party that was listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and whose leaders have celebrated the massacre of Palestinian civilians. The alliance’s leader describes himself as a “proud homophobe.”

On the other side, Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party is in second with 17 seats, boasted, “Netanyahu doesn’t have 61 seats but the change bloc does,” which is theoretically true except that the “change bloc” isn’t really a thing. It includes the centrist Yesh Atid, the anti-Bibi right, a new faction of ex-Likudniks, two Arab parties, and what’s left of the left. (The Labor party, which dominated Israel politics for decades before a dramatic 21st century decline, appears to have at least escaped extinction under new leadership.)

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The unlikely kingmaker could turn out to be Mansour Abbas, leader of the conservative Islamist United Arab List, which appears to have won five seats. This party broke with the other Arab parties before this election, in part because of Abbas’ declared willingness to work with Likud in order to make progress on the Arab community’s priorities. Arab parties have traditionally shunned being part of government coalitions, and have never been asked to be part of one. Abbas is likely to be fielding a lot of calls in the coming days, though he’s not really a natural fit with either bloc—Netanyahu’s side includes virulent anti-Arab racists; the opposition includes secularists and leftists who might object to his conservative views on gay rights and other issues.

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A lot could still change in the coming days. As with the recent U.S. election, there were a record number of absentee votes that still need to be counted, and just a one- or two-seat change could dramatically change the picture. Netanyahu’s friends also borrowed his friend Donald Trump’s tactic of alleging election fraud ahead of time.

Even with all the ambiguity, two things are clear: that Israeli politics has lurched dramatically to the right in recent years, and that Netanyahu himself is the main thing preventing his political compatriots from gaining complete control of the government. Other leaders might step down at this point, but Netanyahu definitely won’t, not least because staying prime minister may be his best chance at staying out of jail.

Once the results are in, President Reuven Rivlin will choose who he thinks has the best chance to form a coalition. It’s entirely possible that no one will be able to, in which case they will do all this again in a few months. Maybe the fifth time will be the charm.

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