The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Israeli parties scramble for coalition partners after election leaves Netanyahu’s fate unclear

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets supporters in Jerusalem on March 24. (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — The results of Israel's too-close-to-call election won't be final for days. But it has already sparked a tumultuous scramble among political parties — desperate to manufacture a governing majority and avoid yet another election — for potential coalition partners, defectors and spoilers.

With both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his opponents falling short of the 61 parliamentary seats needed for a majority coalition, according to preliminary results Wednesday, all sides were looking to the few swing factions.

Former defense minister Naftali Bennett, a Netanyahu rival who hasn't ruled out bringing his Yamina party into the prime minister's bloc, was beseeched by pleas from both sides, but he remained mum on his intentions a day after Tuesday's election.

Netanyahu's Likud party, in the meantime, pressured other former members who had joined a new right-wing party called New Hope to return to the fold. "It won't happen," declared Ze'ev Elkin, one of the targeted New Hope party members, in a radio interview.

The biggest reach may be the suggestion by some Likud members that a partnership with the small Islamist party United Arab List could put Netanyahu's coalition into the majority and eliminate the need for Israelis to return to the polls for the fifth time since the spring of 2019.

“It is our duty to do everything we can to prevent a fifth election,” coalition chairman Miki Zohar told the media site Ynet. Some members of Netanyahu’s bloc have previously pledged never to serve in government with an Arab party.

Netanyahu appeared to win the most seats in Tuesday’s election. But his path to a governing majority grew more difficult as the official vote count proceeded. Final results are not expected until Friday, and the lack of a decisive winner could prolong Israel’s political stalemate.

With some 97 percent of the vote counted Wednesday, Likud had secured 30 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Netanyahu’s coalition of right-wing and religious parties appeared to secure a total of 52 seats.

Five times that Benjamin Netanyahu has beaten the odds and clung to power

Not even the addition of seven seats controlled by Bennett would put Netanyahu over the top, dashing hopes in the prime minister’s camp that a conservative coalition was in reach. That prospect, suggested by exit polls released Tuesday night, had caused jubilation at Likud headquarters and led Netanyahu to initially declare a “great victory” on Twitter.

But by the time he addressed his supporters after 2 a.m., the early vote count had begun instead to suggest that further deadlock was to come. He called for an end to the stalemate, saying, “We cannot in any way drag the country to a fifth election. We must form a stable government now.” 

A governing majority appeared equally out of reach for the anti-Netanyahu parties, which range from disaffected conservatives to Israeli-Arab communists.

The preliminary results gave avowed anti-Netanyahu parties 57 seats, plus another 11 controlled by two Arab factions. But in previous elections, these groups had been unable to negotiate a power-sharing agreement that would topple the prime minister.

Adding to the uncertainty is an unusually high number of absentee ballots from military members, overseas diplomats and people quarantined under covid-19 precautions. Those estimated 450,000 votes, expected to be counted this week, could provide dramatic swings in the finally tally.

“This is an extremely close election,” said Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute. “Nothing is decided.”

Three previous elections in the past two years each failed to produce a functional government, and lawmakers again face a period of intense horse-trading as pro- and anti-Netanyahu forces try to cobble together a majority.

Exit polls showed that Israeli politics remain locked in profound divide, particularly over Netanyahu. For the fourth time in a row, the electorate split nearly evenly between voters wanting to get rid of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and those hoping to continue his 14-year rule.

The prime minister, who is facing criminal prosecution on bribery, fraud and other corruption charges, has fallen short of securing a majority in the previous three votes. Each time, he has been spared by the refusal of opposing parties to join forces against him. In the previous vote, center-left parties declined a chance to create a majority by inviting the Arab faction into their coalition.

Some critics of the prime minister took heart that the election may have thwarted Netanyahu’s bid to hang on to power. The vote followed a campaign in which the prime minister and his allies sought to demonize his opponents and discredit the judicial system that is prosecuting him.

“In many ways, this election is an affirmation of the strength of Israeli democracy, in the face of attempts by a master politician to subjugate the electoral and judicial processes to his own political needs and to avoid the legal fate that awaits him,” said Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser.

Bennett, a former Likud defense minister who broke with Netanyahu to form his own party, will still bring considerable strength to the bargaining about to begin. He has not ruled out serving in a new Netanyahu government, even though the two former allies are said to dislike each other.

Another, more unlikely, powerbroker emerged Wednesday when the Islamist United Arab List gained enough votes to enter the Knesset threshold with five seats. The leader of the party, Mansour Abbas, had split with a larger collection of Arab parties, indicating he was willing to deal with Netanyahu in exchange for concessions and greater spending for the country’s minority Arab population of 2 million.

While some Likud members have indicated their willingness to team up, it’s unlikely the party of religious Muslims would directly join Netanyahu’s coalition of right-wing Jewish nationalists. But he could help the prime minister by abstaining from any anti-Netanyahu majority. Conversely, he could throw his support the other way, and, according to Israeli media, he had already agreed to meet next week with the leader of the anti-Netanyahu parties, Yair Lapid.

“We’re prepared to hold talks with both sides,” Abbas said Wednesday in a radio interview. “If an offer is received, we’ll sit down and talk.”

Other winners in the emerging vote totals included parties at either end of the political spectrum. The left-leaning Labor and Meretz parties, which had struggled in recent elections, each claimed a better-than-expected seven seats.

At the far right of the political spectrum, a controversial fringe party entered parliament for the first time thanks to an embrace by Netanyahu. The party of Itamar Ben Gvir, whose anti-Arab politics are rooted in the ultranationalist Kahanist movement, won seats in the Knesset as part of the ticket of the right-wing Religious Zionist Party, whose leader describes himself as a “proud homophobe.”

If Netanyahu is able to form a majority with these partners, political observers say, it would be the most conservative in Israel’s history. “Netanyahu will be in the hands of the most extreme elements,” said Plesner.

Cunningham reported from Istanbul.

Five ways that ‘political fox’ Netanyahu has clung to power

As Israelis head back to elections, there’s a new twist: Democrats in Washington

As Israel votes again, Palestinians still wait their turn