US & World

Israel's Election: What Comes Next As Netanyahu Rises Just Short Of A Majority

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu smiles after first exit poll results for the Israeli elections at his party's headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Monday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu smiles after first exit poll results for the Israeli elections at his party's headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Monday.
Ariel Schalit/AP

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving prime minister, claimed victory in Monday's election but it was not clear whether he could muster a governing majority.

Has "Bibi, king of Israel" — as his diehard supporters like to chant — found a way to extend his reign?

His veritable throne has been wobbling in the past year. Bribery allegations led to an indictment. Onetime allies turned against him, mounting the strongest challenge yet to his political survival. Election after election ended in stalemate.

It is not certain whether Monday's election, the third in a year, will resolve the political deadlock.

But with most votes counted — and with the highest voter turnout in years — Netanyahu's Likud party is on track to come first, and to win more votes than in the previous two elections.

Netanyahu has hailed it the "biggest win" of his life.

Now he is emboldened. But his corruption trial is expected to begin later this month. What happens next?

Here are some takeaways from the vote and questions to consider going forward.

How close is Netanyahu to victory?

With more than 90% of votes counted, the Likud party appears to have won as many as four more parliamentary seats than the centrist Blue and White coalition, led by his main rival, retired army Gen. Benny Gantz. Likud together with its right-wing and religious partners are projected to win a combined 59 seats, which is just short of the 61 seats needed for a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel's parliament.

Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel voted in high numbers for an Arab coalition of parties that opposes Netanyahu, strengthening the opposition bloc and potentially restricting the incumbent's options for building a majority.

How did Netanyahu pick up more votes this time?

Netanyahu appealed to untapped constituencies, from taxi drivers to Ethiopian Jewish immigrants. He made an effort to drag more of his supporters to the polls — and to take votes away from Gantz. Netanyahu shared unfounded rumors about his rival, and attacked Israel's Arab lawmakers. He also touted President Trump's Mideast peace plan as a boon for Israel.

What are some possible outcomes?

If Netanyahu can lure a few lawmakers from Gantz's corner to cross the aisle and join his administration, he'll have a clear path to forming a government. Some of those lawmakers are right wing and could easily fit in a Netanyahu government. Netanyahu may also seek to bring back former ally Avigdor Lieberman, who has blocked his previous attempts at forming a government this past year. But most of these candidates were united by their desire to unseat Netanyahu and may not be willing to become his lifeline.

Gantz has not yet conceded defeat but has no clear path to forming a majority coalition. If he or other opposition parties refuse to join Netanyahu's government, Israel's political deadlock could continue,with no candidate able to form a governing majority. That could lead to yet another election.

But if no other party crosses the aisle, runner-up Gantz would be under pressure to compromise, so as not to be blamed for a fourth national election.

On election night, Netanyahu called for national reconciliation, appearing to leave the door open for Gantz to join his government. If Gantz agrees, he would have to renege on his vow not to serve under an indicted prime minister.

What happens next?

Israel's president is likely to tap Netanyahu with the task of forming a government, since he appears to have the best chance of forming one. Then Netanyahu would get a maximum of 42 days to negotiate with potential partners on joining his coalition in exchange for cabinet jobs and policy promises.

But on March 17, Netanyahu is scheduled to appear in court for the start of his trial. He'd be the first sitting prime minister to be tried in court. He faces charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes for alleged deals to wield secret control over media outlets. He denies wrongdoing.

If Netanyahu is tapped to try to form a government, Israel's Supreme Court would likely be asked to rule whether an indicted man may form a government. By law he is not required to resign, but it's a crisis Israel has never before faced.

Could Israel's judiciary bring down Netanyahu?

If the Supreme Court rules that Netanyahu's indictment disqualifies him from forming a government, it will outrage his supporters, who accuse the court of left-wing, "deep state" attempts to bring him down.

On the other hand, if Netanyahu is allowed to serve a new term, his allies vow to curb the judiciary's powers so lawmakers can overturn future Supreme Court decisions. Plus, his government would be tasked with appointing a new attorney general, state prosecutor and police chief — officials overseeing the very institutions that have investigated Netanyahu. The prime minister or his appointees could try to delay his trial or pass a law putting off his trial until he leaves office.

What could happen to President Trump's Mideast peace plan?

If Netanyahu succeeds in building a right-wing coalition, he promises to annex Jewish settlements and other occupied land in the West Bank at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That would face stiff opposition from most countries and from Palestinians, who say it would be a fatal blow to the possibility of building a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank.

President Trump encouraged Israel's unilateral annexation moves in his Middle East peace plan, and U.S. and Israeli officials have already started working on drawing up annexation maps. But if Netanyahu only manages to build a slim majority government, he may not have enough support to fulfill such a bold move.

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