Ballots papers of Israeli legislative election, 2019 > Laliv g, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

With final numbers in the Knesset still undetermined, yesterday’s election – the fifth in three years – will likely allow former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a coalition government.

Where we are 

  • With some 86 percent of votes counted, the bloc of parties loyal to Netanyahu is forecastto win around 65 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, representing a comfortable majority by Israeli standards.
  • However, a sizeable number of ‘double envelope’ ballots cast by voters in the military, prisoners, diplomats and the disabled are yet to be counted, potentially shifting the dial in the Knesset to some extent.
  • Any changes from the double envelope ballots are extremely unlikely to cause a significant shift in the balance of power, however.
  • The pro-Netanyahu bloc, which could form a government according to current forecasts, is made up of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, the Haredi Shas and United Torah Judaism, and far-right Religious Zionism, led by Bezalel Smotrich, which includes far-right Itamar Ben Gvir’s Yehudit Ozmit faction.
  • Meanwhile, the anti-Netanyahu forces which formed the last coalition government – including parties of the right, centre and left, as well as Arab parties – have suffered electoral setbacks.
  • The election came in the context of Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trials, the outcome of which may well be impacted by the fact that the defendant will likely soon be back in the Prime Minister’s Office.

The numbers game 

Last night’s exit polls showed a return to power for Netanyahu, who previously served as prime minister between 1996-1999 and 2009-2021. Speaking to supporters on Wednesday morning, Netanyahu claimed to be “on the cusp of a huge victory”, promising “a national government that will look after all the citizens of Israel”. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who was able to build the outgoing coalition government last year, refused to concede defeat, telling supporters in Tel Aviv to wait until all votes were counted and noting that his centre-left Yesh Atid party had secured record levels of support.

With 86 percent of votes counted, the current vote shares are as follows:

  • 32 percent Likud (centre-right)
  • 24 percent Yesh Atid (centre-left)
  • 14 percent Religious Zionism (far-right)
  • 12 percent National Unity (centrist)
  • 11 percent Shas (Haredi)
  • 8 percent United Torah Judaism (Haredi)
  • 5 percent Yisrael Beytenu (anti-Neyanyahu right)
  • 5 percent Ra’am (Arab-majority Islamist)
  • 5 percent Hadash-Ta’al (Arab-majority leftist)
  • 4 percent Labor (centre-left)

A recap 

Yesterday’s election was announced in June this year, when the ‘change’ coalition of anti-Netanyahu parties collapsed following a series of legislative defeats and defections from its left- and rightmost wing. Since April, the coalition had governed without an outright majority in the 120-member Knesset, when Yamina MK Idit Silman quit the government to join the opposition. Simultaneously, in line with the 2021 rotation agreement that founded the Bennett-Lapid ‘change’ government, sitting foreign minister Yair Lapid became prime minister. He will remain prime minister until a new government is formed, but is extremely unlikely to be able to lead the next government.

Deal with the devil 

The most obvious partner for Netanyahu to form a coalition with is the far-right Religious Zionism party led by Bezalel Smotrich.

  • With major media focus in recent months, Ben Gvir is seen as major figure of this year’s election, having seen his party move from the political fringe to winning some 10 percent of voters.
  • Smotrich and Ben Gvir, who represent the furthest-right elements of Israeli religious nationalism, have previously made racist comments against Israeli Arabs and in the Knesset are widely expected to push for judicial reform to weaken the Supreme Court and pass legislation to end Netanyahu’s ongoing legal problems.
  • Although he avoided being pictured with Ben Gvir on the campaign trail, Netanyahu repeatedly made clear his willingness to appoint Smotrich and Ben Gvir to ministerial positions, should they prop up a government led by him.
  • LFI has reiterated its longstanding opposition to Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s “repugnant views” which are “antithetical to Israel’s founding principles and rejected by the vast majority of Israelis”.

Still to come 

With more than 10 percent of the vote still to count, there remain more than 600,000 so-called “double envelope” ballots, which could determine the fate of two more parties – left-wing Meretz and anti-Zionist Arab-majority Balad – currently hovering just below the minimal 3.25 percent threshold needed to enter the Knesset. Should both parties pass that threshold, Netanyahu’s bloc would be denied a majority, with at least eight seats being allocated to Meretz and Balad between them.

However, analysis by the Israel Democracy Institute of previous elections has found that double envelope ballots tend to favour right-wing and fringe parties that appeal to young voters, disadvantaging Balad, an Arab-majority party, in particular. However, Meretz has reason for optimism following previous boosts it has received from the double envelope ballots.

Coalition building 

As the counting of votes has continued today, the first coalition building movements have begun. Despite some speculation that he may support Netanyahu in the interest of blocking a far-right presence in the government, sitting defence minister and leader of the centrist National Unity party Benny Gantz has declared that his party will sit in opposition in the new Knesset.

  • In a statement following a meeting of its leadership, the party quashed speculation that the party may negotiate on joining a Netanyahu-led coalition in order to broaden and moderate it.
  • “Israel faces great challenges, among them a government reliant upon extremist elements”, the statement said.
  • “We respect the decision of the voters, and after the formation of the government, we will serve as a responsible and level-headed opposition as we continue to build National Unity as a governing alternative”, the statement continued.

What happens next

Final results are expected on Thursday, which will then make it possible for a coalition to be formed by invitation from President Herzog. While the “double envelope” votes may a difference to the final calculations, they seem unlikely to change the direction of travel. Whatever its makeup, a right-wing government appears to be on the way.