How he won and what happens now

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comfortable win wasn’t expected. Many observers had suggested that the race might be too close to call or that Israelis were sick of his long rule. So what happened? And what happens next?


Q: How many votes did Netanyahu and Likud win?

A: Israel uses a proportional representation system, which means that political parties are assigned seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, based on the percentage of the vote they got. This year, turnout was almost 72 percent.

While seats are still being assigned, it seems clear that Likud is the largest party in the new Knesset, winning 30 seats out of 120. Netanyahu’s chief challenger, Isaac Herzog, is likely to have 24 seats for his center-left Zionist Union alliance. The third-largest group is the Joint List of Arab parties, with 14.

Given parliament’s nature, 30 seats is a substantial victory.


Q: Didn’t polls predict something different?

A: Yes. In recent weeks, polls had shown support for Netanyahu waning and Herzog probably coming out with the most seats in the Knesset. A poll released on Friday estimated that Likud would win 22 seats, while the Zionist Union would win 26.

In the Israeli system, that might not have ensured a Herzog premiership. Israeli parties need to form coalitions to have enough seats to form a functioning government. Usually, the Israeli president asks the party with the most votes to start forming a coalition after the results come in, but in cases where it appears that the largest party won’t be able to form a coalition, a party with fewer votes might be asked. Netanyahu was clearly worried. Just days before the election, he was warning his supporters that Likud might lose. Even on the day of voting, exit polls suggested a dead heat.


Q: What changed?

A: There’s always a margin of error within polling. Even exit polls — in which pollsters ask voters how they voted — can sometimes be off.

There’s also an important factor in the Israeli situation: Election law bans the publication of opinion polls in the final four days of the campaign. The last polls for the Israeli election were released on Friday.

A lot can happen in a few days. In this case, Netanyahu went on a media blitz, sending out dramatic messages that seemed to be designed to win over hesitant right-wing voters. He warned voters that he might lose. He turned his back on the two-state solution. And, most controversially, on Tuesday he warned that Israeli Arab voters were turning up “in droves” to cast ballots.


Q: What will the new Netanyahu government look like?

A: Netanyahu will have to form a coalition. Herzog has ruled out a unity government, suggesting that he would rather lead the opposition. There are eight other parties in the new Knesset. Likely partners for Likud include Naftali Bennett and Jewish Home, a right-wing pro-settler party. Moshe Kahlon may take his centrist Likud-offshoot Kulanu party and its 10 seats into a Netanyahu-led government.

Such a coalition might be proof of the rightward shift in Israel in recent years. Likud’s victory seems to suggest that the ultranationalist pitch made by Netanyahu over the past few days has a serious audience. His mandate seems clear.

Washington Post