Benjamin Netanyahu’s chances of swiftly securing another term in office diminished on Wednesday as a partial vote count showed his coalition falling short of the 61 seats needed to secure an outright majority.
With nearly 90 per cent of ballots tallied, the results from Israel’s fourth election in two years indicated Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party and allied ultra-orthodox and far-right factions, would secure just 52 seats in the 120-member legislature. His opponents have so far won 56.
However, the elections commission said it was still counting about 450,000 ballots from voters who cast them outside their home polling place. Experts said this could amount to as many as 11 seats in the Knesset, meaning those seat allocations could change.
Likud has far outperformed the other parties, with initial results showing it has swept at least 30 of the seats, almost double its main challenger, the centrist Yesh Atid party which came in second.
The five-term premier will probably be pressed to form a coalition, meaning he will have to win over other parties to avoid the fifth round of elections.
And so, the country’s future will probably rest in the hands of “kingmakers” – those who hold crucial swing seats.
They include Naftali Bennett, the ex-defence minister and rival, who heads up the right-wing Yamina party as well as Mansour Abbas, the chairman of a small Arab party, the United Arab List.
Like Mr Bennett, Mr Abbas, whose party only just nudged over the four-seat threshold needed to secure a place in parliament, has not ruled out joining either camp.
“We’re not in anyone’s pocket,” he told a radio station. “We’re willing to have contact with both of the sides with anyone who is trying to form a government and sees himself as a future prime minister. If there’s an offer we will sit, we will talk.”
Mr Netanyahu would need both those parties to push his bloc over the 61-seat majority needed to form a government, creating an extraordinary alliance between Likud and the Arab Israeli party, the ultra-orthodox factions, right-wing nationalist Yamina and the Religious Zionist Party, which has been criticised for being openly racist and homophobic.
Dahlia Scheindlin, a prominent pollster, told The Independent: “It is pretty far fetched, but Netanyahu would do anything to stay in power,” raising concerns about the coalition that she called illiberal, theocratic and conservative.
She says while it was still possible, the most likely outcome would be a Netanyahu-led alliance cobbled together from his allies, Yamina and defectors from other parties.
The pressure will be on to make something work. Scheindlin says: “Everyone will try everything to avoid a fifth election.”
Most analysts see the possibility of an anti-Netanyahu coalition as being even more unlikely as it would bring together the uncomfortable cobbling of left-wing, centre and far-right factions, led by divisive centrist Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party.
On Wednesday, with the results showing a less-decisive win for Likud than the exit polls, Mr Netanyahu appeared more subdued. He boasted to his supporters of a “great achievement” but stopped short of calling the elections an all-out victory.
Instead, he appeared to reach out to his opponents and called for the formation of a “stable government” that would avoid another election.
He said: “We must not under any circumstances drag the state of Israel to new elections, to a fifth election. We must form a stable government now.”
A fifth election also remains an option if neither camp can form a coalition. In that case, Mr Netanyahu would remain a caretaker prime minister heading for a corruption trial and a confrontation with US president Joe Biden over Iran.
No party in Israel’s history has ever secured an outright majority and so instead the faction with the most seats is given the mandate to try to build a coalition with allies. In a close contest such as this, exit polls are only the starting point of frantic backroom talks to determine who ultimately takes power.