As final ballots were counted on Thursday, Prime Minister Yair Lapid was reportedly readying to concede the election to Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, whose right-wing religious bloc appeared on course to a resounding victory.
The premier was set to call his political rival at the conclusion of the vote tally, the Walla news site reported, adding that Lapid’s Yesh Atid party has told ministers to prepare for an orderly and responsible transfer of power.
Lapid’s move to the opposition was all but confirmed as the tallying of the so-called double-envelope votes put left-wing Meretz party, which would have been part of his bloc, under the 3.25 percent threshold needed to enter the Knesset.
As of 3 p.m. Thursday, the Central Elections Committee had counted some 4.5 million ballots amounting to 95% of all votes, and was expected to complete the tally later in the day.
Netanyahu’s bloc was projected to hold a comfortable majority in the 120-seat Knesset after 17 months in the opposition with his far-right and Haredi allies.
While Netanyahu’s bloc stood at 65 seats in the 120-seat parliament throughout most of the count, some reports said the remaining ballots were likely to give the Yisrael Beytenu party an extra seat at the expense of United Torah Judaism, which would bring the bloc down to 64.
The results pointed to a stunning comeback for Netanyahu, currently on trial in three corruption cases, and will likely end four years of political deadlock that has dragged the country through a series of draining elections.
The Likud leader was reportedly looking to quickly put together a coalition of right-religious parties, with key ally MK Yariv Levin reported to have started discussions with the parties within the bloc.
While backed throughout the election campaign by the far-right Religious Zionism and ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism, Netanyahu will still need to haggle with the parties over policy goals and cabinet posts to secure their support, which could include complicated negotiations in areas where the factions have far-reaching demands or do not see eye-to-eye.
Still, Netanyahu is said to hope that he will be able to balance the demands of the various factions so that the coalition remains stable.
Reports said that Netanyahu charged Levin, a seasoned negotiator, with the task of managing talks. The Likud No. 2 is considered Netanyahu’s righthand man in the Knesset, managing faction business and politics.
While formal meetings will only begin after the final announcement of the vote tally, Levin was said to have begun contacting the parties to start negotiations.
Religious Zionism MK Bezalel Smotrich and Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben Gvir will maintain full coordination even as they enter separate coalition negotiations with Likud, the Kan public broadcaster reported.
The two far-right factions ran on a joint ticket but are expected to split.
However, according to the report, the two have vowed to back each others’ demands to Likud and have agreed that either they both enter the coalition or neither does.
Some reports in recent weeks have suggested that Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit could be excluded from the coalition in favor of Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s National Unity party, but both the defense minister and opposition leader have publicly dismissed the idea.
Because Ben Gvir and Smotrich will be negotiating separately with Likud, Shas leader Aryeh Deri will be negotiating as the head of the second-largest party in the bloc, and is expected to be “rewarded” for his loyalty, the Ynet news site reported.
Deri, whose party made the cost of living crisis a key part of its platform, reportedly may receive the post of finance minister if he requests it, the report said.
Deri admitted to tax offenses earlier this year — his second criminal conviction — and resigned from the Knesset as part of a plea deal. However, he is set to return to the Israeli parliament with his party expected to hold 11 seats, according to the latest tally.
Speculation had already started Wednesday regarding ministerial posts and demands from Netanyahu’s allies for joining a coalition.
The Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, loyal allies that have stuck with Netanyahu throughout political tumult in recent years, are expected to demand the government roll back some of the reforms instituted by the current coalition.
Their demands are expected to include canceling taxes on sweetened beverages and single-use plasticware items, which have a negative impact on health and the environment respectively. However, the products are staples in the Haredi community, which felt targeted by the taxes.
Shas and United Torah Judaism are also expected to demand canceling reforms to the system for certifying kosher food; reversing changes to the process of converting to Judaism; ensuring yeshiva students will not be subject to the military draft; and receiving funding for religious schools, including those that don’t meet state education standards for core studies.
Netanyahu’s far-right allies in the Religious Zionism party are expected to demand far-reaching judicial reforms and prominent ministerial positions.
Ben Gvir has said he will demand the Public Security Ministry, which oversees police. Netanyahu said Monday he was a viable candidate for the position.
Smotrich has expressed interest in the ministries of finance, justice and particularly defense, although Netanyahu is seen as more likely to give the latter role to Likud MK Yoav Gallant, a former senior Israel Defense Forces general.
There is also speculation Smotrich may be given the Justice Ministry, from which he would seek major changes to the judicial system, including packing the committee that chooses judges with politicians, striking some of the charges faced by Netanyahu from the penal code, and pushing legislation that would essentially strip the High Court of the ability to strike down unconstitutional legislation, a policy aim also backed by the ultra-Orthodox.
Many right-wing politicians claim the High Court is an undemocratic left-wing bastion, and are seeking to change its makeup and deny it the ability to act as a check on government or Knesset power.
Critics have warned that the ultra-nationalists in Religious Zionism could also use government power to strip Arab citizens of their rights and could ratchet up societal divisions and tensions with Palestinians, as well as with Israel’s allies abroad.
LGBT rights organizations have also sounded the alarm over potential reforms by a new government that could impact the community’s rights.
President Isaac Herzog’s office has said he will begin meeting with representatives from the parties in the Knesset next week to hear their recommendations for prime minister, once election results are finalized and certified.
Herzog has until November 16 to announce which lawmaker he will task with forming a government, though he can do so earlier. In previous rounds, party consultations typically lasted two days.
The lawmaker tasked with forming a government has 28 days to do so, with the possibility of a 14-day extension.
Netanyahu will almost certainly be given the job backed by his bloc’s strong showing.
Reckoning on the left
On the other side of the aisle, Lapid was reportedly shirking conversations with his allies amid accusations the premier failed to properly marshal members of his coalition bloc to achieve the best results for the center-left, and instead focused on building up his own Yesh Atid party at the expense of two key allies, the left-wing Meretz and Labor parties.
Labor leader Merav Michaeli announced that she would give a press conference Thursday evening.
Yesh Atid is projected to win 24 seats, its best-ever showing. But Meretz failed to secure the minimum number of votes needed to enter the Knesset, a stunning fall for the longstanding left-wing beacon.
Lapid had lobbied intensively for Meretz and Labor to join forces and run on a joint slate last month, but Labor leader Michaeli resisted the alliance with Meretz, which sits further to the left on the political spectrum than her faction.
The hardline nationalist Arab party Balad, which was not part of the coalition, also fell just under the electoral threshold, after running on its own instead of in partnership with Hadash and Ta’al. If both Balad and Meretz had made it into the Knesset, that would have taken eight seats from other parties and could have denied Netanyahu his majority.
Results as of 3 p.m. Thursday showed that parties opposed to Netanyahu took over 2.22 million votes, compared to 2.25 million for parties allied with him, with some 215,000 still to be counted.
The Netanyahu-led bloc will secure far more seats because Balad and Meretz failed to clear the threshold, erasing over 275,000 votes combined, though Lapid would have faced an uphill battle to build a majority even if both had made it in, with Balad and Hadash-Ta’al both vowing to remain in the opposition.