Barring an absolutely catastrophic polling mistake from all three of Israel’s main television channels, Benjamin Netanyahu will not command a majority in the 22nd Knesset and Likud is likely to be only the second largest party there. We have seen exit polls fail before, but the unanimous 10 P.M. call is unlikely to change.
It was Netanyahu who dragged Israel into an unnecessary second election in 2019. It was Netanyahu who set the bar at 61 seats for his bloc of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties. It was Netanyahu who threw everything he had at this election, going on air for hours and hours until the polls closed. Israeli voters doubled down on their verdict of the last election and denied him victory.
Netanyahu is going nowhere. His rival, Kahol Lavan head Benny Gantz, is nowhere near reaching a majority of his own as things stand. But one thing seems certain: Unless that miraculous turnaround between the exit polls and the actual results happens – the Netanyahu magic has been broken.
The politician who made it his business to win elections, who did it better than anyone else because he worked harder and always came up with a new strategy, has run out of dirty tricks. And the Israeli electorate has run out of patience.
This isn’t a victory for the “peace camp” or the left, or even for the center-left. This victory was won together with the votes of ultranationalists supporting Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, and Gantz’s Kahol Lavan is at best a center-right party. This is a personal defeat for Netanyahu. The winners have yet to be determined.
But with Netanyahu’s defeat comes an end to the spell he has cast on an entire political establishment. Israel is in for another period of political deadlock and while President Reuven Rivlin is now likely to give Gantz the mandate to form a government, he will struggle and Netanyahu – still in office as caretaker prime minister and still controlling a large minority in the Knesset – will fight him every step of the way and try to run down the clock on Gantz’s mandate. After all, he did the unthinkable by dissolving the Knesset six weeks after it was sworn in, and he has already spent a large part of the now-ended campaign sowing doubt as to the validity of the election result and accusing the left, and particularly Israel’s Arab citizens, of trying to “steal the election.”
But the Bibi spell has been broken, and with the spell gone new possibilities and permutations open up.
A national unity government now seems the most likely outcome – but even that will be difficult to achieve. Would Netanyahu serve under Gantz or in rotation with him, and if so who would go first? And what will Lieberman do in his new role of kingmaker? He now holds considerable power over both potential prime ministers.
And with the spell broken, can unthinkable combinations suddenly become thinkable? Could the ultra-Orthodox parties make their peace with Gantz and his Kahol Lavan partner Yair Lapid? Would Democratic Union and Lieberman sit at the same coalition table? And what would the four Arab parties of the Joint List do? Joining a coalition at this point still seems impossible, but a supply and confidence agreement that would allow Gantz to form a minority government is not impossible.
Netanyahu the magician is still here, but his powers are waning. A political era that began when he first came to power in 1996 is almost over, and Israeli politics will never be the same again.