The future of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the helm of Israeli politics looked "uncertain" on Wednesday after nearly 90 per cent of votes counted, raising the possibility of a continued political impasse and even an unprecedented fifth election. Netanyahu's Likud party has emerged as the single largest with 30 seats, but the right-wing bloc led by the 71-year-old leader still does not have the 61-seat majority needed to form a coalition in the 120-member Knesset (Israeli parliament).
The election turnout of 67.2 per cent was a drop of 4.3 per cent since last March's election when the turnout was 71.5 per cent, and the lowest of the four elections of the past two years. The Arab communities particularly witnessed "voter apathy", probably because of infighting, but it was also a shade lower among the Jews.
Some observers attributed this to "election fatigue" and also people choosing to engage in "Passover cleaning" at home in preparation for the festival over the weekend, instead of turning up to vote. As Central Election Committee data continued to come in, the anti-Netanyahu bloc, a motley crew of left, right and centrist factions, was also shy of a majority signalling continued political gridlock.
The exit polls on Israel's leading TV channels released on Tuesday evening immediately after the polling ended at 10 PM indicated that both Netanyahu and his committed religious and nationalist allies did not have the required numbers to form a government. However, political analysts thought that the right-wing Yamina party led by an old ally of Netanyahu could join hands, despite having bitterly opposed each other during the election campaign, giving him a slight edge and a possible razor thin majority.
The political equation on Wednesday morning took a new twist with the Islamist United Arab List (UAL) party crossing the electoral threshold, contrary to the exit poll, further diminishing Netanyahu's bloc. In an address to supporters early Wednesday, a visibly subdued Netanyahu boasted of a great achievement but stopped short of declaring victory.
The mellowed Prime Minister instead appeared to reach out to his opponents and called for formation of a stable government that would avoid another election. We must not under any circumstances drag the state of Israel to new elections, to a fifth election, he said adding, "We must form a stable government now." The bloc led by Netanyahu now has 59 seats, two short of a majority, even if Yamina's Naftali Bennett, who in the past has served as Defence Minister under Netanyahu, joins him.
In an interview earlier this morning to Kan Radio, UAL leader Mansour Abbas said that he is not beholden to either bloc, and will not rule out joining any coalition, but will rule out any party that rules out the list. According to the Central Elections Committee, Likud currently has 30 Knesset seats, followed by former scribe Yair Lapid led Yesh Atid party at 17.
The ultra-Orthodox Shas party has garnered nine seats, while United Torah Judaism, Yamina, Labour and Yisrael Beiteinu seem to be winning seven seats each. Central Elections Committee Director General, Orly Ades, said that there are about 450,000 special ballots that have yet to be counted. The election was seen as a referendum on Netanyahu's leadership, amid his ongoing trial on corruption charges as well as his handling of the pandemic.
The elections were called barely seven months after the last government was formed after the Likud and Blue and White party failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline., collapsing the government. The two parties had fought each other bitterly in the three ultimately inconclusive elections throughout 2019 and 2020 but agreed in May last year to form a power-sharing government with a rotating premiership between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz.
Buoyed by a successful vaccination drive, one of the fastest in the world per capita, Netanyahu, 71, put it at the forefront of his campaign, claiming that under his leadership, Israel has become the first country in the world to beat the COVID-19 pandemic. Israel has reported 828,764 coronavirus cases so far with 6,109 deaths.
The right-wing bloc in Israel's political spectrum has a comfortable majority in the 120-member Knesset but Netanyahu's problems emanate from some determined "friends turn foes" looking to end his long-run. The Likud campaign made two consistent promises – a government it leads will prioritise economic recovery from the pandemic and that it will expand the circle of peace treaties already signed with four Arab nations over the past year to include as many as four additional countries.
Netanyahu had been hoping for a decisive victory that would allow him to form a government with trusted allies that could provide him immunity from corruption charges. However, the number of parties and right-wing leaders opposing his continuance as Prime Minister kept on growing with his main rival in the Likud party, Gideon Saar, breaking away to form a separate party with the declared intent to unseat Netanyahu.
Netanyahu's own ruling Likud party has stood by him despite defections insisting on forming a government only under his leadership. The two ultra-orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, have pledged their allegiance to him.
Netanyahu has been in power continuously since 2009, having served an earlier three-year term in the late 1990s.