“It is clear that Netanyahu does not have the majority to form a government under his leadership,” said Gideon Saar, one of Netanyahu’s former allies who now opposes him. “Steps must now be taken to realize the possibility of forming a government for change.”
In order to form a government, a candidate must work with allied partners to secure a majority of 61 seats in the Knesset, or parliament.
According to the final results released by the Israeli Election Commission, Netanyahu and his allies won 52 seats, compared to 57 held by his opponents.
In the middle were two undecided parties: Yamina, a seven-seat nationalist party led by a former lieutenant of Netanyahu, and Raam, an Arab Islamist party that won four seats.
Neither Naftali Bennett of Yamina nor Mansour Abbas of Raam joined either side. Yet deep divisions within the pro-Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu blocs could make it difficult for either side to secure a majority with them.
“Israel is going through its worst political crisis in decades. It is obvious that our political system finds it very difficult to produce a decisive result, ”said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. “This is because of the inherent weaknesses in our electoral system, but it is also because of the Netanyahu factor.”
Tuesday’s vote was widely viewed as a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership style and his ability to rule under indictment. “The Israelis are right in the middle on this issue,” Plesner said.
Netanyahu’s supporters see him as a statesman uniquely qualified to rule the country. He campaigned on his handling of the country’s successful coronavirus vaccination program and diplomatic deals made last year with four Arab countries.
His opponents, however, say Netanyahu is untrustworthy and has ruined many aspects of the coronavirus crisis. They also say he should not be ruling the country at a time when he is on trial on multiple corruption charges. The proof phase, during which a series of former collaborators must take a stand against him, is due to begin on April 5.
Thursday’s results set the stage for weeks of uncertainty as the president of the country’s leading figure, Reuven Rivlin, consults with party leaders to see if they can agree on a candidate capable of concocting a new majority in power.
Merav Michaeli, whose center-left Labor Party won seven seats, declared victory for the anti-Netanyahu camp. “Now is the time to form a government,” she told Channel 13 TV.
It might not be that simple. The anti-Netanyahu camp includes a wide range of parties ranging from left-wing Arab factions to hardline nationalists opposed to cooperation with them.
One option offered on Thursday was the ability to use their slim parliamentary majority to pass a law that would prevent an indicted politician from forming a new government, a move aimed at removing Netanyahu from office. Several parties have said they are leaning in this direction.
Netanyahu is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three cases. He has denied any wrongdoing and has dismissed accusations of witch hunts by law enforcement and biased media. His opponents accuse him of leading the country in repeated elections in the hope of winning a parliament that would grant him immunity from prosecution.
Dani Dayan, a member of the New Hope Party from Saarland, said he was not happy to pursue a “personalized” law, but said it was worth considering.
“Netanyahu has made such a mix between his trial and the needs of the state. Therefore, there is room for debate on the issue, ”he said.
Netanyahu’s Likud issued an angry statement comparing its opponents to clerical leaders in Iran, who are scrutinizing election candidates. “The ‘change bloc’ is just a nice way of saying an ‘undemocratic bloc,’ Likud said.
Despite the charges against him, Netanyahu’s Likud garnered around a quarter of the vote, making it the largest party in parliament. In total, 13 parties received enough votes to enter the Knesset – the most since the 2003 election – leaving parliament divided between a host of mid-sized parties representing Jewish, Arab, secular, nationalist and liberal factions ultra-Orthodox.
In order for Netanyahu to secure a majority, he would likely need to bring in both Bennett, who leads a party popular with extremist Jewish nationalists, and Abbas, whose party is inspired by the region’s Muslim Brotherhood movement. Bennett ruled out an alliance with Abbas.
In another blow to Netanyahu, Bezalel Smotrich, an ally of the prime minister and leader of the far-right religious Zionism party, said on Thursday that “a right-wing government will not be established with Abbas backing. Period. Not in my custody. “
Netanyahu will also attempt to search for individual lawmakers across the aisle to “defect” and join him.
This, for now, looks like a long shot given the hostility towards the Prime Minister.
Bennett, Saar and Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the secular nationalist party Yisrael Beitenu, are all former Netanyahu confidants who had messy rifts with the prime minister.
Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz struck a power-sharing deal with Netanyahu last year, only to see him quickly disintegrate amid incessant infighting.
Opponents of Netanyahu will also explore various possible combinations that could secure the required majority of 61 seats. This could include the appeal of Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies and even disgruntled Likud members.
The bewildering array of possibilities means weeks of uncertainty are very likely to lie ahead, with the chance of an unprecedented fifth consecutive election if an alternative coalition cannot be found.
Late Thursday, Yair Lapid, whose centrist Yesh Atid party finished second with 17 seats, announced that he had met Michaeli and “discussed options for cooperation to build a coalition for change.”
He said they had agreed to “meet again and continue discussions”.