Gone in 38 hours: Israel’s election means Benjamin Netanyahu is not fully in charge of his fate

Voters’ verdict remains up in the air after the right-wing bloc is left three seats short of a majority



Only 38 hours elapsed this week between Benjamin Netanyahu claiming a “great victory” at Likud’s election night rally and him accusing his opponent Benny Gantz of trying “to steal the election” at a meeting in the Knesset.

In that time, the early exit polls which indicated that Mr Netanyahu had sealed an incredible comeback in Monday’s election were replaced by the realisation that the actual results meant Israel is still in political deadlock, with either side incapable of forming a government.

Even by Israel’s turbulent standards, this was a political rollercoaster of a week.

As voting ended on Monday night, rumours were already swirling that Mr Netanyahu had triumphed.

The exit polls on the three main television channels were unanimous: Likud, which had been relegated to second place in September, had surged ahead and was now leading Blue & White by three to five Knesset seats.

More importantly, Likud and its three coalition partners — Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina — together held 60 seats, just one short of a majority.

And since the exit polls in the past have usually underestimated the tally of the right-wing and Strictly Orthodox parties, the supporters had every reason to believe the final result would be even better.

There could be a new Netanyahu government, supporters said, with the power to pass sweeping reforms to the legal system and, who knows, even an immunity law for serving prime ministers.

Or perhaps it could replace the attorney general — whatever it takes to prevent the corruption trial of Mr Netanyahu due to begin on March 17.

One person, however, was a bit more skeptical: Benjamin Netanyahu himself.

Few politicians anywhere in the world are more fluent in the arcane language of pollsters, and he was wary because his own polling didn’t show Likud and the coalition doing that well.

He delayed his departure from Jerusalem to the rally and waited for the first updated exit polls two hours later. His suspicions were justified as the televising pollsters revised their projection for the coalition one seat downwards to 59.

At this point, he ordered his convoy to set out and rushed to Tel Aviv. He needed quickly to cement in the public’s mind that he had won. His victory speech was emphatic, but also curiously emollient towards his rivals.

He did not mention any of his legal troubles and when supporters began chanting “fire Mandelblit”, referring to the attorney general, he instead spoke of the need for reconciliation.

Mr Netanyahu, already aware he would need additional partners to form a government, was subtly offering an olive branch to his likeliest partner, Benny Gantz.

Over the next day-and-a-half, his fears were confirmed: the coalition had only 58 seats, three more than in September but still three short for a majority.

Likudniks casually boasted of “defectors” who were on their way to join them, but that was unrealistic. The reality is that Mr Netanyahu is now facing a trial in 11 days and is no closer to government.

After a shock with the initial exit polls, opposition parties are already putting pressure on him and still refusing to serve under him.

While an alternative majority coalition does not exist — there is no way the Arab-run Joint List and Yisrael Beitenu will sit together in a coalition — there are other options.

For example, the opposition could still get together for a law banning anyone facing indictments from forming a government.

Alternatively, Mr Gantz could push for a minority government of just Blue and White and Labour-Gesher-Meretz, which would be supported from the outside by both the Joint List and Yisrael Beitenu.

Neither of these are simple or guaranteed, but talk of them is designed in part to pressure Mr Netanyahu in to agreeing to a national unity government in which he steps aside while his trial is ongoing.

They were certainly enough to elicit Mr Netanyahu’s outburst on Wednesday.

In a very short time, the victory he had hoped for is turning into another political quagmire where he may quickly lose control of his fate.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive