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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.
Ariel Schalit
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.

Updated on March 4 at 1 p.m. ET

Benjamin Netanyahu, fighting to hang on as prime minister, rebounded in Monday's election, but it is unclear he will have the parliamentary majority he needs to win a new term. Can the "King of Israel" — as his diehard supporters like to chant — find 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.

Despite these setbacks, he gained an edge in Monday's election. With most votes counted — and the highest voter turnout in years — Netanyahu's Likud party finished first in the race, with more votes than in the previous two elections.

Netanyahu has hailed it the "biggest win" of his life. Now he is emboldened. But he is without a clear path to forming a government, and his corruption trial is scheduled 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 99% of votes counted, the Likud party is projected to win 36 parliamentary seats. Netanyahu's main rival, the centrist Blue and White coalition led by retired army Gen. Benny Gantz, is projected to win 33 seats. Neither candidate has a sure path to building a majority coalition. Netanyahu and his right-wing and religious partners only seem to have captured 58 seats — three seats short of the 61 seats needed for a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel's parliament.

In terms of the popular vote, however, parties running against Netanyahu collectively won 125,000 more votes than pro-Netanyahu parties.

For instance, the third-largest bloc in the Knesset, the Arab Joint List, gained strength as Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel voted in high numbers for the Arab coalition of parties that opposes Netanyahu. Taken together, anti-Netanyahu votes could restrict the incumbent's options for forming a government.

How did Netanyahu pick up more votes this time?

For years, Netanyahu has rallied nationalist and ultra-religious sectors of society, with a nationality law and recent promises to annex land that Palestinians want for a future state. In the runup to this election, he 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. Some right-wing voters who voted for Gantz's platform of change in the previous election are thought to have returned to vote for Netanyahu this time.

What are some possible outcomes?

Likud is courting politicians from other parties to persuade them to defect. 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, a former military chief who vowed to restore civility to a divided country, has not yet conceded defeat but has no clear path to forming a majority coalition. If he or other opposition parties refuse to join a Netanyahu government, Israel's political deadlock could continue, with no candidate able to form a governing majority. That could lead to yet another election.

But many Israelis have voting fatigue. If no other party crosses the aisle, runner-up Gantz could 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?

After official election results are presented on March 10, Israel's president will hold consultations with parties, and by March 17 he must ask a candidate to try to form a government. He is likely to tap Netanyahu, 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 Netanyahu is not required to resign, but it's a crisis Israel has never before faced. And on Wednesday, Gantz's spokesman told NPR his party is considering proposing legislation to prevent an indicted prime minister from remaining in office.

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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