Benjamin Netanyahu’s path to a governing coalition narrowed on Wednesday despite leading his rightwing coalition to within a few seats of a majority in Israel’s fourth election in two years.
Early results on Wednesday suggested that the five-time premier’s alliance may not win more than 59 seats in the 120-seat Knesset even if he manages to entice a former ally, Naftali Bennett, to join his camp.
With 87 per cent of the vote counted, the contest was still too close to call.
The final tally will depend on whether Ra’am, an Islamist party that has remained tight-lipped on who it would back for prime minister, clears a threshold of 3.25 per cent of the national vote to enter the Knesset.
Ra’am was polling at 3.16 per cent but, if it clears the level to enter parliament, the entire seat count would be reshuffled, giving the party four seats and dropping the prime minister’s camp firmly below a majority.
Mansour Abbas, the Ra’am leader, is betting that his role as tiebreaker between the pro-Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu factions could give his party outsized power in coalition talks.
Netanyahu’s Likud party retained a commanding lead in the preliminary count over the second-largest party, Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”), with 31 seats to 18. Results will probably take days to confirm after counting was slowed by coronavirus curbs.
The premier stopped short of declaring outright victory but said just before 3am that “we achieved something huge tonight — we’ve led the Likud to become the largest party in Israel, by a very large margin”.
He also vowed to avoid a fifth election after four polls failed to achieve a conclusive result, with voters who want to oust Netanyahu, 71, evenly balanced by those who have backed a record sixth premiership for an indicted prime minister fighting off a corruption trial.
His rivals included a former television presenter focused on middle-class issues, a breakaway faction of ex-Likud leaders, a secular nationalist leader of Russian-speaking Israelis and a constellation of leftwing parties.
The challengers campaigned without a clear candidate for prime minister, promising only to work out an alliance once they collectively unseated Netanyahu.
But it remained unclear if the committed anti-Netanyahu parties would be able to muster a coalition even if they pulled out of the polling dead-heat with the prime minister.
“As of this moment, Netanyahu does not have 61 seats,” Yair Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid, said. He added that he had already started talks within the bloc. “We will do everything possible to establish a sane government in the State of Israel.”
Benny Gantz, the wartime general who challenged Netanyahu in three previous elections, was punished by voters who felt betrayed by his decision last year to join a coalition government as defence minister, with Netanyahu as premier. The results showed his Blue and White party winning fewer than seven or eight seats.
After being initially projected by opinion polls to gain almost 20 seats, New Hope, led by Likud rebel Gideon Sa’ar, looked set to garner fewer than six seats, indicating that Netanyahu retained the mantle of the right’s undisputed leader.
The largest upset appeared to be the near-complete collapse of the Arab bloc of voters. The Joint List of Arab parties, which won 15 seats in the elections last year, split before this election and will drop to fewer than eight seats.
The Joint List remains a staunch opponent of Netanyahu, unlike the breakaway Ra’am, whose intentions remained unclear.
“We have to be very careful, but we also need to wait — this is a big responsibility,” Ra’am’s leader Abbas told Anas radio in Nazareth on Wednesday. “The door is still open to the Joint List. We are not enemies.”