Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with supporters after addressing them at his Likud Party headquarters in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on election night early on April 10, 2019. Photo: AFP/Thomas Coex

Israel’s incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was poised to head the next government on Wednesday, indebted to the surprise gains of his ultra-Orthodox allies.

It was a close call. As the real time results of the April 9 elections came in through the night, the two largest parties in the country were in a dead heat. The right-wing Likud, the party now in control, and the contending center-left Blue and White Party were each slated to obtain 35 seats in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.

Both Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz declared victory. Netanyahu proclaimed he would form the next government and that his seat tally was an “unprecedented achievement.”

Gantz, flanked by his allies, said: “This is a historic day,” adding that “the largest party is the one that should form the next government. In elections there are winners and losers, and we are the winners.”

However, the apparent parity between the two biggest parties was misleading.

In the Israeli system, there are 120 seats in the Knesset, which are distributed proportionally. In order to obtain and maintain a functioning coalition, the leader of the largest party must be able to put together a coalition of at least 61 members loyal to him.

The right-wing bloc is set to obtain 65 seats, while the left-wing bloc will have roughly 55 representatives. Therefore, despite an impressive electoral performance by the Blue and White Party, there is no realistic prospect of a center-left government being formed.

With less than 5% of the votes yet to be counted, the Likud was in the position to form the next government with Netanyahu as prime minister.

Far right debt

The Likud victory is a result of the achievements of its natural coalition partners rather than the gains of the Likud party itself. In particular, the ultra-orthodox parties out-performed expectations. Both the Ashkenazi Torah Judaism and the Mizrachi Shas party received eight mandates and were tied for third-largest party.

This serves as a reminder that the ultra-orthodox are difficult to poll due to their anti-establishment tendencies and aversion to technology. The polls had even undermined the confidence of their leadership ahead of the election.

“I was genuinely worried,” the head of Mizrachi Shas, Aryeh Deri, admitted in a speech to his supporters. But his concerns were unwarranted. The ultra-orthodox parties are now set to determine the contours of the domestic policies of the Netanyahu government.

Gains amongst ultra-orthodox parties made up for unexpected setbacks experienced by some of the ideologically right-wing parties.

The libertarian Zehut party, under the leadership of pro-marijuana extremist Moshe Feiglin, did not pass the electoral threshold. This was surprising, due to their impressive performance in pre-electoral polls.

Just as shocking was the failure of Naftali Bennett’s New Right Party to obtain any seats, though some votes are still pending. Bennett and his party mate Ayelet Shaked had been dominant members of the previous government and were expected to retain influential positions in the forthcoming coalition.

In contrast, the racist United Right party, which includes adherents to the teachings of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, obtained five seats and is likely to be an influential part of the new government.

The right-wing bloc also benefited from the unexpected success of former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s party, Yisrael Beitenu. According to most polls, the party was not expected to pass the voting threshold. However, they obtained five seats in the Knesset.

This is a reminder of how difficult it can be for Israeli pollsters to project the voting patterns of Russian-born Israelis, the support on which that party depends.

The most moderate right-wing party, Kulanu, led by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, outdid expectations by obtaining four seats.

The centrist Blue and White party, similarly focused on combatting corruption, hoped to entice Kahlon into an anti-Netanyahu coalition. But as the last votes were being counted, the sitting finance minister immediately announced he was committed to entering a Likud-led coalition.

The decision was likely motivated by the poor performance of the Kulanu party, as well as a desire by Kahlon to avoid burning any bridges before a potential return to the Likud party. Regardless of his motivation, the commitment by Kulanu to a Likud-led government likely clinches victory for Netanyahu.

Riding out indictments

Despite contending with several criminal indictments – pending a hearing – the Likud party increased its share of seats in the Knesset. This was a major defeat for the rule of law. The Likud will get about five seats more than it had obtained previously.

Due to the erosion of the standing of Israeli institutions in the eyes of right-wing constituents, corruption charges are no longer a hindrance to electoral candidates emanating from that side of the political spectrum.

In effect, Netanyahu has been rewarded electorally for his indictment for bribery. The outcome betrays a general lack of respect for Israeli governing institutions, such as the courts, police and media.

As Prime Minister Netanyahu cements his victory, the challenge before him is whether he will be able to keep himself out of jail. This will require a coalition willing to guarantee him immunity from indictment on the charges he is facing.

The price the prime minister will pay for loyalty is likely to be dramatic and steep. It will include not only the usual capitulation to the demands of the ultra-orthodox parties, but also the possible annexation of the occupied West Bank as well as the continued erosion of any semblance of Israeli tolerance for its Palestinian minority.

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