Israel's polarized, dispirited electorate did not deliver Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the victory he had hoped for in elections Tuesday, and exit polls suggest his right-wing bloc fell short of a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament. Netanyahu and his allies are projected to win 52 or 53 seats, while the ideologically diverse group of parties opposed to Netanyahu look set to have 60 seats. The remaining votes will go to Yamina, the party led by former Netanyahu ally Naftali Bennett, who has positioned himself as the key swing vote.
This was Israel's fourth national election in two years, and the split decision Tuesday could mean a fifth election. Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving leader, has led the last four series of unstable governments. He campaigned this time on Israel's successful COVID-19 vaccination campaign and a series of agreements with Arab countries. Netanyahu's opponents argue he shouldn't be allowed to lead Israel while standing trial on criminal corruption charges.
It the exit polls are correct, Netanyahu would not have a majority even if Bennett's Yamina party joins his right-wing coalition. But it will also be hard for his main opponent, Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party, to find common ground to form a government with the other anti-Netanyahu parties. Still, Axios says, "those parties could potentially pass a law, targeting Netanyahu, to ban anyone under a criminal indictment to serve as prime minister."
"I have already begun this evening to hold talks with some of the leaders of the bloc for change and will continue in the next few days," Lapid said. A subdued Netanyahu addressed supporters early Wednesdays, touting his Likud party's "great achievement" but not declaring victory. "We must not under any circumstances drag the state of Israel to new elections, to a fifth election," he said. "We must form a stable government now." After Netanyahu's brief remarks, the room cleared pretty quickly and one of the cleaning crew pulled the string to release the balloon drop.
"All three options are on the table: a Netanyahu-led government, a change coalition that will leave Netanyahu in the opposition, and an interim government leading to a fifth election," Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, tells The Associated Press.