Israeli voters have rewarded Netanyahu's divisive tactics

With 90 per cent vote counted, the right-religious bloc is two seats shy of a majority – and a constitutional crisis now looms.

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It ain’t over ’til it’s over, but with more than 90 per cent of the votes counted in Israel’s third election in 11 months, one thing is clear: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has secured a personal victory. On track to win 36 seats, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister – who will in two weeks be on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, was not rejected by the electorate. His tactics of fear, incitement – against Arabs, against those on the left – hostile briefings against opponents, attacks against the justice system and his party's questionable use of social media, did not deter voters. Neither did the fact that the country's infrastructure is crumbling after months of an interim government having deprived the public sector of any meaningful budget.

With a predicted 36 seats, Netanyahu will have bested the results of April’s election, a career-best. In a speech last night he called the result “the biggest win of my life”. Having dismissed the charges last year as “an attempted coup” he seems, like Donald Trump, to have convinced his base that the charges against him are either the false political persecution of a leftist “deep state”, or, if true, irrelevant.

For these voters, Netanyahu is Israel’s best Prime Minister, and certainly the best positioned to ensure the left doesn’t snatch the government from the right. “We produced the best decade in the history of the state,” Netanyahu said last night. “We turned Israel into a superpower. We’ve cultivated relationships that we had not had before with world leaders, and I want to tell you: this includes many leaders – more than you can imagine, including in the Arab and Muslim world. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg." Netanyahu's previous campaigns have featured posters of him meeting Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Narendra Modi.

The other big winner of the night was the Joint List, an alliance of three Arab parties and one Arab-Jewish party, which has jumped from 13 seats to 15. This was partly down to high voter turnout, with 71 per cent voting on Monday, compared to 69.83 per cent in September, and partly due to some voters expressing their revulsion at Likud’s incitement against the Arab minority. Heba Yazbak, one of the Joint List's Knesset members, tweeted on Tuesday that the party had seen an increase in Jewish voters.

Some of those votes probably came from Labour-Gesher-Meretz, the alliance of the traditional parties of the left, which is down to seven seats from nine. Labour leader Amir Peretz ruled out stepping down last night, saying that he would remain the “adult in the room” of the Israeli peace camp. The left will need to do some serious soul-searching if it is to stay relevant as a political force.

[See also: Can the Israeli left reinvent itself?]

Netanyahu’s main rival, the centrist Blue and White Party, led by former Army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, is predicted to win 32 seats. After three elections, it’s an impressive showing for a newcomer. The party's main campaign message is that it will get rid of Netanyahu. In Israel’s proportional representation system, a majority of 61 seats is needed to form a coalition. If the former defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who with seven seats remains in his role as kingmaker, plays ball, the centre-left could in theory form a government, either with the Joint List in coalition or supporting from outside. Speaking at his Yisrael Beitenu party HQ on Monday night, Lieberman, on track to win six seats, said he will not renege on any pre-election pledges. Those include not sitting in coalition with Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox parties. Last night he also said he “would do everything to prevent fourth elections.”

Numbers fly around after an Israeli election, but the figures that matter most are the size of the blocs. On Tuesday, with 90 per cent of the vote counted, the right-religious bloc was on 59 seats and the centre-left on 54, if you count the Joint List. This does not look so different to the other impasses of the past 11 months. The circumstances have shifted, however. Three elections have taken their toll. Analysts are saying that, with the opposition weak and depressed, it may be easy for Likud to encourage defections, boosting its chances of forming a coalition. According to a report on Tuesday, the party threatened to release tapes that would embarrass a Blue and White lawmaker if she does not defect to a Likud-led coalition.

But even if Netanyahu pulls it off and is given the mandate to form a government, the shadow of a constitutional crisis looms. In January, the Supreme Court delayed ruling on whether an indicted member of parliament can form a government, with a decision postponed until after this week’s vote.

The full count won’t be in until later this week. So far, however, the results point to at least three depressing conclusions. The first is that Israel’s electorate has endorsed a politician whose modus operandi is that anything goes in the name of survival, no matter how damaging to the country. The second is that Israel’s “ideological right”, as the leader of the Yamina alliance, Naftali Bennet, described his group last night, remains in a position to continue deciding Israel's political future. This is the right that is unlikely to compromise for peace, and that can’t believe its luck in securing backing for annexation of Palestinian territories via Trump’s "deal of the century". The third is that Israel remains bitterly split, with an electorate that wants to take the country in very different directions. The coming weeks of coalition negotiations will be an attempt to make Israeli politics somehow span the deep divisions in Israeli society. It remains to be seen if that is possible. And even if it is, without a new, less adversarial politics, it is unlikely that any consensus will hold for long.

Alona Ferber is Special Projects Editor at the New Statesman.

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