Political deadlock loomed in Israel on Wednesday after the country's fourth parliamentary election in two years delivered no clear overall winner, initial results showed.
With about 87.5% of the vote counted, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party and its ultra-Orthodox and far-right allies fell short of a 61-seat majority.
Even if the Yamina party of Netanyahu's former ally Naftali Bennett joined a Likud-led government, Netanyahu would have no clear path to forming a coalition. Bennett has so far refused to endorse either side.
Meanwhile, a small Arab party emerged as a potential kingmaker on Wednesday morning after the latest count indicated it would cross the threshold to get into parliament. Like Bennett, the head of the Ra'am party, Mansour Abbas, has not ruled out joining either camp.
A fifth election also remains an option if neither camp can form a coalition. In that case, Netanyahu would remain a caretaker prime minister.
The final tally of the votes cast at regular polling stations is expected later Wednesday.
The initial results showed the country as deeply divided as ever, with an array of small sectarian parties dominating the parliament.
The results also signalled a continuing shift of the Israeli electorate toward the right-wing, with a strong showing of an ultranationalist anti-Arab religious party.
A referendum on Netanyahu
The vote was seen as a highly charged referendum on Netanyahu's divisive rule.
Opinion polls had forecast a tight race between those who support Israel's longest-serving premier and those who want "anyone but Bibi,” as he is widely known.
“Vote, vote, vote, vote, vote,” Netanyahu said after casting his ballot in Jerusalem, his wife, Sara, at his side. He called the occasion a “festival of democracy.”
“This the moment of truth for the State of Israel,” said Lapid as he voted in Tel Aviv.
One truth: Israelis are weary of the do-overs. The balloting, like Israel's world-leading vaccination campaign, got good reviews for organisation — if only because everyone involved has had lots of practice, with the potential of even more if the results don't produce a governing majority. That answer might not be clear for weeks.
“It would be better if we didn’t have to vote, you know, four times in two years,” said Jerusalem resident Bruse Rosen after casting his ballot. "It’s a little bit tiring.”
Candidates made their final push in recent days with a series of TV interviews and public appearances at shopping malls and outdoor marketplaces. The campaigns increasingly reached into people's personal space with a constant barrage of get-out-and-vote texts that made cell phones ding and buzz at all hours.
At issue more than ideology is Netanyahu. He's portrayed himself as a global statesman uniquely qualified to lead the country through its many security and diplomatic challenges. He has made Israel's successful coronavirus-vaccination campaign the centrepiece of his reelection bid, and pointed to last year's diplomatic agreements with four Arab states.
The reality is more nuanced. Some 80% of the nation’s 9.3 million people are vaccinated and Israel is reopening, but more than 6,000 have died of COVID-19. Israel came under international criticism for failing to quickly send significant quantities of vaccines to Palestinians to fight the virus’ surge in the West Bank and Gaza.
And one of the four Arab nations, the United Arab Emirates, recently poured cold water on the relationship with Israel because its leaders did not want Netanyahu to draw them into electioneering. The new administration of President Joe Biden, too, has given Netanyahu a cool reception.
Opponents accuse Netanyahu of bungling the management of the coronavirus pandemic for most of the past year. They say he failed to enforce lockdown restrictions on his ultra-Orthodox political allies, allowing the virus to spread, and point to the still-dire state of the economy and its double-digit unemployment rate. They also say Netanyahu is unfit to rule at a time when he is on trial for multiple corruption charges, a case he dismisses as a witch hunt.
Up to 15% of the electorate was expected to vote outside their home districts, a batch of absentee balloting that’s larger than usual to accommodate those with coronavirus or in quarantine. The government is dispatching special polling stations, including bringing voting boxes to patients' bedsides, to provide ways for them to cast ballots safely.
Those votes are tallied separately in Jerusalem, meaning final results may not be known for days. Given the tight race, the large number of undecided voters and a number of small parties struggling to cross the 3.25% threshold for entry into parliament, it could be difficult to predict the outcome before the final count is complete.
The nearly constant campaigning has a price, said Israel's president.
“Four elections in two years erode public trust in the democratic process,” Reuven Rivlin said as he cast his ballot in Jerusalem, urging Israeli's to cast theirs yet again. "There is no other way.”
Israelis vote for parties, not individual candidates. No single party list of candidates has been able to form a governing majority in Israel’s 72-year history.
Netanyahu’s Likud party and those led by his rivals will be looking to smaller, allied parties as potential coalition partners. The party that can cobble together a majority coalition gets to form the next government — a process that is expected to take weeks.
Tuesday’s election was triggered by the disintegration of an emergency government formed last May between Netanyahu and his chief rival to manage the coronavirus pandemic. The alliance was plagued by infighting, and elections were triggered by the government’s failure in December to agree on a budget.
Netanyahu is hoping to form a government with his traditional religious and hard-line nationalist allies. These include a pair of ultra-Orthodox parties and a small religious party that includes openly racist and homophobic candidates.
Netanyahu’s rivals have accused him of causing the past two years of paralysis in hopes of forming a more favourable government that would grant him immunity or protect him from prosecution.
His challengers include Yair Lapid, Israel’s opposition leader whose Yesh Atid party has emerged as the main centrist alternative to Netanyahu.
Lapid reflected the race's stark rhetoric Tuesday when he offered himself as an alternative to a “government of darkness and racism.”
Netanyahu also faces challenges from a number of onetime allies who have formed their own parties after bitter break-ups with the prime minister.
They include former protege Gideon Saar, who broke away from Likud to form “New Hope.” He says the party is a nationalist alternative unburdened by corruption charges and what he says is a cult of personality that keeps Likud in power.
Kingmaker in waiting?
Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, another former Netanyahu aide, could emerge as the kingmaker. A hard-line nationalist politician who was formerly Netanyahu’s education and defence minister, Bennett has not ruled out joining a coalition with the embattled prime minister, allowing him to court both sides in future coalition talks.
The personality politics have so overtaken the race that there’s been almost no mention of the Palestinians, after years of frozen peace talks.
Analysts expect voter fatigue to contribute to lower turnout, which had been at 71% in the most recent election a year ago.
Netanyahu’s religious and nationalist allies tend to be highly motivated voters. In contrast, Arab voters, disappointed with the disintegration of the umbrella “Joint List” party, are expected to stay home in larger numbers this time. Voters in the more liberal and secular areas around Tel Aviv also tend to have lower rates of participation.
Netanyahu could benefit if these trends materialise. But unlike last year’s elections, the prime minister is without one key ally: former President Donald Trump, whose support he leveraged in previous elections with massive billboards on highways and high-rises showing them together.
In contrast, Netanyahu has barely mentioned Biden. The new U.S. president called the prime minister only after reaching out to leaders of several other countries and Israel’s supporters began to complain that the delay smacked of a snub. The two men insist their alliance remains close.