What we know, what we don't know, and what could happen next in the Israel election saga
We all know the baseball rule that if the runner and the ball arrive at the base simultaneously, the runner is called “safe” because of the axiom “a tie goes to the runner.”
The same does not necessarily hold true in politics.
The cheery exit polls reported for the Likud and Binyamin Netanyahu did not age well. As we post our final election update before taking a breather for Pesach, it looks as if the election ended in a tie.
Here’s what we know now as of Wednesday afternoon, Israel time:
With some 87% of the vote counted, if these partial results were extrapolated to 100% of the vote count, the Likud would win 30 seats. With Shas winning 9, UTJ 7, and the Religious Zionists 6, the solid Netanyahu forces captured 52 seats.
Even if Naftali Bennett decides he’s back in Bibi’s camp, his expected seven seats would only lift the pro-Bibi bloc to 59 – two short of a majority.
The anti-Bibi bloc, led by Yair Lapid’s 17 seats, scored a total of 50 seats.
Two Arab parties are expected to win 6 and 5 seats, respectively. The Joint List, with 6 is as anti-Bibi as it gets. The Ra’am party is uncommitted. Ra’am favors civic engagement in Israeli politics as opposed to knee-jerk support for the Palestinian or pan-Arabic cause. Party leader Mansour Abbas conceptually owes a debt of gratitude to Netanyahu for urging him to split from the Joint List and run separately, although this is the Middle East, the deal you made yesterday does not have to resemble the deal you make tomorrow.
In a nutshell: As is stands today, neither Bibi, nor his bevy of opponents have a clear path to forming a 61-seat coalition. The political jockeying to win President Rivlin’s go-ahead to take a stab at forming a coalition will be intense and chaotic.
Here’s What We Don’t Know:
Election officials say there are still an estimated 450,000 votes yet to be counted. Israel does not allow absentee, or mail-in ballots. You have to vote on site, somewhere. So the elections committee set up special voting sites to accommodate citizens who could not make it to their regular polling precincts near their homes.
These include diplomats stationed overseas, COVID-19 and other hospital patients and workers, voters still in quarantine, prisoners, and soldiers who couldn’t get a furlough from their base. Their votes are sometimes referred to as the “double envelopes.” Every Israeli places their paper ballot in a small, postcard size envelope before dropping it in a cardboard voting box, but because these ballots must be securely transported to the Knesset to be counted, they are placed in a second envelope before they are moved. (Too bad America didn’t think of this before November 2020!)
In a nutshell: These 450,000 votes could easily cause shifts of a seat or two in either direction for many of the parties. We just don’t know in which direction and which parties will be affected until they’re all counted. We should know for sure some time before Shabbos.
Here’s What Could Happen Next:
Let’s say the final count gives the pro-Bibi forces 60 or 61 seats, including Bennett. President Rivlin would probably give Netanyahu the nod and the hard bargaining would begin. Netanyahu would try and pry away a rebel from another party to get to 61. One option would be to lure back Zev Elkin or Sharren Haskel who jumped ship to join Gideon Saar’s party. With Saar’s poor showing of just six seats, one of them could be tempted to jump back into the Likud fold. But that’s still a longshot because they all stubbornly insisted they have divorced Bibi for good.
Netanyahu’s second option would be to crack a deal with the Arab Ra’am party to support his coalition from the outside. This is a less desirable scenario. On one hand, Ra’am respects the way chareidi parties have dealt themselves in, gaining budgets for their constituents while steering clear of controversial foreign policy issues. Ra’am supports the Abraham Accords and would be happy to reach an internal Abraham Accord with the Likud.
However, it’s hard to see Ra’am and the Religious Zionists sitting around the same table, even informally. The Religious Zionist’s include Itamar Ben-Gvir – known for the portrait of Baruch Goldstein [who killed 29 Arabs at the Meoras Machpelah in 1994] hanging over his “fireplace.” In addition, it could handcuff Israel’s foreign policy options. As much as Ra’am says it supports the Abraham Accords, that’s fine as long as Bibi’s making peace with Arabs, but what if has to make war?
Should Bibi fail, or lack any good options, President Rivlin could task Yair Lapid to lead the anti-Bibi forces with coalition building. However, this would be a real uphill climb. The anti-Bibi forces would need every MK from both Arab parties to join in their coalition, or at least support them the outside. That would never fly with Gideon Saar’s party, who aside from promising never to sit with Netanyahu, vowed not to partner with, or join a coalition that includes the Arab Joint List. If they stick to their guns, then the chances of an anti-Bibi coalition are dead on arrival.
In a nutshell: The pro-Netanyahu forces must hope and pray the final vote tally lifts them to 61. If not, Netanyahu will need all of his political wiles to pry one or two MKs away, or somehow induce Saar to break his campaign vow and return to the Likud.
And if none of the above happens then – gulp – get ready for a fifth election at the end of August or early September.
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