There’s no doubting the impressive scale of Benjamin Netanyahu’s political feat.
In Israel’s third election in 12 months, he managed to come from behind and regain early all the territory lost by Likud and his coalition between the previous two elections in 2019, and is now in a commanding position to form a new government.
But the celebrations at Likud’s election night rally in Tel Aviv, where the embattled was feted as the inevitable winner were somewhat premature, as were some of the breathless media reports.
The opposition to Mr Netanyahu may be in disarray following what was a disappointing night, and most of all a walloping for the merged party of Labour and Meretz, which is down to a mere 6 Knesset seats (shared with Orly Levi-Abecasis’ Gesher), but it still has, in theory at least, the means to block a new Netanyahu government.
As of Tuesday afternoon and with 97 per cent of the vote counted, Mr Netanyahu’s coalition still lacks two seats for the majority it needs to form a new government. There’s still a chance that his bloc will go up to 60 seats, but it could also lose one and go down to 58.
Mr Netanyahu is now basing his strategy on his ability to prize away a couple of defectors from the opposition. His messengers are quietly probing, cajoling and, by some reports, even threatening possible candidates. With 61 seats he can both finally swear in a new government, 14 months after his previous one became a caretaker administration when the Knesset was dissolved in December 2018.
No less crucially for him, he could then take emergency steps to try and prevent his own corruption trial, scheduled to start in a fortnight, from taking place.
There are two ways he can do this. One is to fire Avichai Mandelblit, the attorney general, which is something interim governments cannot do, replacing him with a more pliant figure who will withdraw and “re-examine” the indictments for bribery and fraud.
The other option is to quickly pass a law granting a serving prime minister immunity from prosecution during his term.
Either move is expected to be challenged in the Supreme Court and would therefore need also additional legislation to bypass that.
All this would amount to a full-blown constitutional crisis, as Mr Netanyahu would essentially be upending Israel’s separation of powers and setting himself above the courts and the rule of law.
But it may not reach that. Without a majority in the Knesset he will be incapable either of forming a government or passing controversial legislation.
And even if he finds the necessary defectors, or manages to agree on a national unity government with Benny Gantz, the new members of his coalition are expected to demand freedom to oppose an immunity law and demand that Mr Mandelblit be allowed to continue in his post.
A constitutional crisis would thus be averted, at least for the moment, and instead Israelis will be treated to the unprecedented spectacle of a serving prime minister running the country while regularly attending court in a case where he could end up being jailed.