‘King Bibi’ they chanted at Likud’s victory party last night but Benjamin Netanyahu has not clinched victory and the crown could yet be snatched from his head. Israel’s second election of 2019 — a poll in April ended similarly in deadlock — is poised to end the reign of the country’s longest-serving prime minister. Votes are still being counted but centrist opposition Kachol Lavan is narrowly leading Likud. And when religious and other right-wing parties are counted, Netanyahu appears unable to reach the magic 61 seats required for a majority in the Knesset.
In ordinary times (if such times exist in Israeli politics) Bibi would be over the line with the support of Avigdor Lieberman, his long-time frenemy and leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party. Beiteinu has served in previous Bibi coalitions but Lieberman pulled them out of the government last November, ostensibly over Netanyahu’s gun-shy approach to Hamas but really as a power-play.
Beiteinu, historically a Russian-interest party, is now home to Israel’s secular-right vote and eager to break the hold of Shas and UTJ, which represent the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population and secure their constituents generous government spending, even as most refuse to serve in the IDF. Lieberman says he wants a national unity government this time, calculating that it would lock out the Haredim and make way for legislation requiring them to enlist for military service.
Shorn of Lieberman’s seats, Netanyahu has no obvious way to a majority government — and Netanyahu needs a majority government. For all his pre-poll promises to apply sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and even to Israeli communities throughout Judea and Samaria, his number one priority is immunity. Prosecutors have been circling for years now, indictments on corruption allegations at the ready, and he wants a law to prevent his career ending in humiliation and Ma’asiyahu prison.
Benny Gantz, the ex-general head of Kachol Lavan, has been careful not to declare victory early, as he did in April only to see the exit polls fall through, as they often do in Israeli elections.