Netanyahu declares victory with unclear path ahead

third election

Ilia Yefimovich/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embraces his wife Sara as he addresses supporters following early exit polls.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared victory in the early hours of Tuesday morning — calling it “a great victory for the right-wing camp, and first and foremost a victory for us Likudnikim” — but with election results still trickling in, his path toward a 61-seat majority government remained unclear. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s trial on three charges of corruption is slated to open in Jerusalem on March 17.

Unofficial results: As of Tuesday afternoon local time, only about 90% of the votes nationwide had been tallied up, leaving a still somewhat muddled picture. With those incomplete figures, Likud looked set to take 36 seats, Blue and White 32, Joint List 15, Shas 10, with 7 apiece going to United Torah Judaism, Yisrael Beitenu and Labor-Gesher-Meretz, and 6 to Yamina. These breakdowns are likely to change when the remaining 10% of votes are counted at some point today. They could further shift after the “double envelope” votes — from soldiers, prisoners, the hospitalized and, this year, ballots from the 16 special coronavirus quarantine polling stations — are counted.

Seat math: The early results and the exit polls have predicted the right-wing bloc taking 58-60 seats, but potentially falling just short of the 61 seats needed to form a majority government. But don’t count Netanyahu out if he narrowly misses out on 61, analysts say. During his victory speech this morning, Netanyahu vowed to quickly build a “strong national government,” but also promised: “We must avoid any more elections. It’s time to heal the rifts. It’s time for reconciliation.”

Bibi’s leverage: Michael Koplow, policy director at the Israel Policy Forum, explained that the current situation makes it easier for Netanyahu to flip one or two people to his side. “Everyone is sick and tired of elections, and some of the right-wing Blue and White MKs who have spent three cycles trying to unseat Netanyahu may conclude that after losing ground, the best path forward is the one of least resistance. Israeli voters have demonstrated that there is no great clamor for unseating a prime minister under indictment.” 

Eyes on 61: Jeremy Saltan, a political analyst and Anglo advisor to Yamina, told JI that he thinks it’s “inevitable that if [Netanyahu] doesn’t reach 61, that he will pick off from Blue & White.” But Saltan predicted that, “based on past trends of the double envelopes, I wouldn’t be surprised if the right gets 61 come Thursday afternoon.”

Dr. Einat Wilf, a former member of Knesset, told JI on Monday night: “There is no doubt that in this round Netanyahu had fighting spirit that helped mobilize his supporters. He clearly fought for his life… the Blue and White leaders themselves clearly did not exhibit the same level of desperation to win as Netanyahu.” 

Snap analysis: Saltan pointed out that one big story from the results so far is the “increase of turnout in the Likud and Arab sectors” — both of which “can be attributed to Netanyahu’s rhetoric.” Looking more long term, the poor showing by the Labor-Gesher-Meretz joint list underlines “the collapse of the Israeli left to 6 or 7 seats” from a peak of 56 in 1992 and 29 as recently as 2015.

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