Explainer: How Israel voted and who matters now

An Arab-Israeli man casts his ballot as he votes in Israel's general election, in Kafr Manda, northern Israel
FILE PHOTO: An Arab-Israeli man casts his ballot as he votes in Israel's general election, in Kafr Manda, northern Israel March 23, 2021. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

March 26, 2021

By Rami Ayyub and Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s fourth election in two years has produced yet another stalemate, with neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor those seeking to topple him reaching a majority in parliament.

A final vote tally gives neither the government nor the opposition a clear path to victory, setting up weeks of coalition negotiations and possibly a fifth election.

KINGS AND KINGMAKERS

NETANYAHU ‘S Likud party lost six seats in the election – falling to 30 in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset.

This makes him more reliant on right-wing rivals who will demand concessions during coalition horse-trading.

He campaigned on a world-beating COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

But such is the polarisation in Israeli politics that even this could not break the stalemate. Netanyahu’s supporters love ‘King Bibi’. Critics highlight corruption charges that led to the tag ‘Crime Minister’. Netanyahu has pleaded not guilty to charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

YAIR LAPID, 57, and his centre-left party Yesh Atid – “There is a Future” – came second, with 17 seats.

The former finance minister and TV host campaigned to “bring sanity” back to Israel, a not-so-subtle dig at Netanyahu.

But he must unite disparate parties from across the political spectrum.

NAFTALI BENNETT, 49, who heads the ultra-hawkish Yamina – “Rightward” – party won seven seats.

The former Netanyahu aide, defence minister and high-tech millionaire is vying to take over from his former boss as leader of the Israeli right.

Bennett has positioned himself as a king-maker, refusing to commit to Netanyahu or against him.

BEZALEL SMOTRICH, 41, heads the far-right Religious Zionism party, which won six seats.

It includes Itamar Ben-Gvir, a former activist with the now-outlawed Kach movement, which advocated that Israel expel Arabs. It also includes a member of the Noam movement, which opposes LGBT rights and recognition of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel.

The party includes hardline settlers, and rejects any territorial concessions to the Palestinians, further jeopardising the already slim chances of progress on a two-state solution if Netanyahu needs them for support.

MANSOUR ABBAS, 46, an Islamist member of Israel’s 21.5% Arab minority whose United Arab List won four seats.

Mansour shook the Arab political establishment by leaving a unity coalition and saying he was open to working with Netanyahu.

But no Arab party has ever joined a ruling Israeli coalition. The far-right Smotrich has said he will not sit alongside Abbas.

GIDEON SAAR, 54, a former cabinet minister who quit Likud to set up the New Hope party, was hoping to establish himself as an alternative to Netanyahu but landed only six seats.

Like Likud, his party opposes Palestinian statehood.

In his hunt for more parliamentary seats, Netanyahu will likely urge New Hope defectors to come back ‘home’ to Likud.

HOW DID NETANYAHU’S OTHER ALLIES DO?

Shas, mostly representing ultra-Orthodox Jews of Middle Eastern origin, won nine seats.

United Torah Judaism, mostly representing ultra-Orthodox Jews of European origin, won seven seats.

AND NETANYAHU’S OPPONENTS?

Defence Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party did better than expected, picking up eight seats after he lost many supporters by entering a unity government with Netanyahu.

Israel’s left-wing Labor party also beat expectations, winning seven seats.

Meretz, another left-wing party, won six seats.

The far-right party Yisrael Beitenu – “Israel is our Home”, whose leader Avigdor Lieberman is often at odds with Netanyahu’s religious partners, won seven seats.

The Joint List coalition of mostly Arab lawmakers won six seats, losing ground after the Islamist faction split away.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Official results will be presented on Wednesday to Israel’s president, who will task a leader to try to form a government.

That nominee has up to 42 days to put a coalition together. If he or she fails, the president asks others to try.

If nobody succeeds, Israel goes to a fifth election.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell, Stephen Farrell and Rami Ayyub; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)