Part of the uncertainty is immediate: Netanyahu did poorly compared with his showing in the previous election in April. But as I write, the vote tallies are incomplete. Only later this week will the votes of soldiers be counted. In close elections, those can shift a seat or two in parliament, with major impact.
After that comes the uncertainty of coalition negotiations. It's still conceivable that Netanyahu could put together a government this time — or that another deadlock will lead to the third national election in less than a year.
Let’s review: In April, Netanyahu’s Likud and the right-wing and clerical parties normally aligned with him won 65 out of 120 seats in parliament. Then came a surprise: The old alliance of secular rightists and the ultra-Orthodox cracked. Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Israel Is Our Home party, rejected the conditions of the United Torah Judaism party. Lieberman’s party had five seats; Netanyahu’s majority evaporated.
For Netanyahu, leaving office would have meant losing the levers of power he has used in his bid to avoid being tried for corruption. So rather than follow the constitutional norm of letting another party try to form a government, he called a new election. During the campaign, he tried unsuccessfully to pass a law aimed at suppressing the Arab vote. The shrillness of his fear-mongering increased. As a finale, he blatantly violated laws against broadcast interviews and publishing polling figures on Election Day.
None of it worked. His alliance shrank from 60 to 55 seats. Lieberman nearly doubled his strength, to nine seats, gaining the votes of rightists who were tired of Netanyahu or of alliances with the ultra-Orthodox, or both. If these numbers hold in the final tally, the Likud will be the second-largest party in parliament, after ex-general Benny Gantz’s opposition Blue and White party.
A multiparty vote is complicated, though. Look carefully, and you can see three different majorities. There's a definite majority against Netanyahu remaining in power. There's a clear majority for a secular coalition, without the clerical parties.
And there’s also a right-wing majority. That’s not just because of Lieberman, a secular West Bank settler. Blue and White ran on a platform of continued settlement growth and of permanent Israeli control of a large piece of the West Bank along the Jordan River. In classic Israeli terms, it’s a center-right party, accepting of ongoing occupation while insisting on democracy within pre-1967 Israel. Many Israelis with positions to the left of this voted strategically for Gantz to defeat Netanyahu.
As it looks now, the most realistic path to a government is what Gantz and Lieberman say they want: a coalition of their two parties with the Likud — but a post-Netanyahu Likud. This depends on Lieberman sticking to his promises, rather than selling out for a major role in yet another Netanyahu government. It depends, as well, on the Likud’s politicians waking up from their trance of blind loyalty to Netanyahu.
For the glimmer of light to grow, Blue and White will have to insist that the Likud abandon efforts to reduce the Supreme Court's power. If Blue and White can't repeal Netanyahu-era laws meant to suppress dissent, it will have to insure that they are treated as dead letters. The post-Netanyahu Likud will have to accept that it is one party among many, not the only legitimate voice of the nation. After years of fealty to Netanyahu, it's entirely uncertain that the Likud is capable of such change.
Such a coalition won’t change the most glaringly undemocratic aspect of Israel today: its rule over the disenfranchised Palestinians of the West Bank and its indirect control over Gaza. In a mix of realism and optimism, the most that can be expected is that the new government will restore the space for an honest, open debate about the occupation — without the government trying to paint human rights groups or veterans reporting on their service in occupied territory as enemies of the state, without constant attacks on the media and without a constant effort by the nation’s leaders to replace reason with fear.
It’s entirely too early to tell whether the ray of light is an illusion or sunrise. But we may look back at this as the moment when a democracy showed that it is capable of healing itself.