Likud had prepared for a major victory party in Jerusalem on Tuesday night. Hundreds of blue and white balloons were set up above the stage, ready to rain down as the prime minister ascended the stage. But in the end, at 2:30 in the morning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got up on stage, spoke and left. The members of the party gathered for a solemn rendition of the national anthem – and the balloons stayed in place.
Netanyahu worked hard to convey a victorious air on election night during Israel's last three elections. This time, his speech was cautious. He referenced the looming threat of a fifth round of elections again and again, seemingly to pressure the Knesset members he will need to enlist to his cause in the coming days.
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"We cannot drag Israel into a fifth election, no matter what. Establish a stable government now. I am telling you, with mathematic simplicity, every other option will quickly lead us to another election. We cannot go there," Netanyahu said.
Instead of a festive victory speech, Netanyahu almost seemed to beg: "I extend my hand to every member of the Knesset. I will not rule out anyone who believes in the same values and mode of governance as we do. Because the situation requires this of us and because we need a stable government."
Only half an hour later – after Netanyahu and most of the politicians had left, the activists had dispersed, and aides began cleaning the hall – someone remembered the balloons and pulled the string. They slowly drifted down, with no fanfare, to the floor.
After the repeated electoral cycle of the last two years, Likud knows well that victory only comes with an actual majority to form a government. This remains true despite the fact that (the numbers don't lie) Likud is the only party to really succeed in this round of elections. Every other party just survived or lost power.
Earlier in the night, when the first exit polls came out and gave a Likud-led bloc allied with Bennett's Yamina a clear majority, Netanyahu allowed himself to boast. He said he would aim to form “a strong and stable right-wing government,” arguing it was what “a clear majority of Israeli citizens” want. He said he had already spoken with leaders of his camp – from the parties of Shas, United Torah Judaism, and Religious which each have obtained between 7 and 9 seats.
Later on, updated exit polls projected that Netanyahu's bloc would have no clear path to a majority in the Knesset. It was also a reminder that, with a very narrow margin separating the two camps, exit polls could not be trusted to reflect the final results.
Preparing the ground
Both Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party is the second largest, and Netanyahu said they had held talks with potential allies.
The Likud leader had a "long conversation" with sephardi ultra-Orthodox party Shas leader Arye Dery, with a statement saying they would hold further talks later in the evening. Shas looks likely to take the third place in the polls, with nine seats.
A statement by Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party leader Yaakov Litzman said that his party, United Torah Judaism, would 'work to establish a right-wing government."
Naftali Bennett of Yamina, which has not ruled out nor committed to joining a Netanyahu-led government, could potentially act as a kingmaker in the coalition talks. “I will do only what’s good for the State of Israel,” Bennett said in a short statement.