(JNS) The fourth attempt in two years to unseat embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have failed once again, with Netanyahu securing his largest-ever electoral victory over his rivals. Exit polls show Netanyahu’s Likud receiving a strong 30 to 31 mandates. The tally is at least 12 seats higher than the next largest party: the left-wing Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid.
While official vote totals will only be completed in the coming days—with the potential to alter Knesset distributions by several seats—it’s clear that Netanyahu has emerged as the only viable candidate for prime minister.
He declared victory on Tuesday night and thanked Israel’s citizens, tweeting: “You gave a huge victory for the right and the Likud under my leadership. The Likud is ahead of the next largest party by a large margin.” He added that “it’s clear that most Israelis are right-wing, and want a strong, stable right-wing government.”
The results are markedly different from the previous three election campaigns. In each of those, opposition to Netanyahu’s leadership was consolidated around the candidacy of Benny Gantz and his then-large center-left Blue and White bloc.
In the first election, Likud, and Blue and White, tied with 35 seats apiece. Blue and White edged out a one-seat advantage in the second election (33-32) before finishing three seats behind Likud (36-32) in the third campaign. Despite the close finish, Gantz was unable to form a coalition that would send Netanyahu into the opposition.
Following the third vote, Gantz split his own party ultimately to join a Netanyahu-led coalition while Lapid took his faction of Blue and White into the opposition.
In this decisive fourth campaign, Gantz and Lapid ran separately. Gantz finished with a mere seven seats, while Lapid received the second-most votes of any party behind Likud. But with only 16 to 17 mandates in a distant second place, it remains extremely unlikely that Lapid could form an alternative coalition together with parties of disparate ideologies.
The victory places Israel’s longest-serving prime minister in the driver’s seat—potentially for the next four years. With a majority right-wing coalition, Netanyahu can focus on rebooting the economy of a startup nation ravaged by coronavirus lockdowns. He has promised to reduce taxes and slash government bureaucracy, policies traditionally opposed by Israel’s left-wing.
Netanyahu will also be responsible for securing Israel against a continuously evolving Iranian nuclear threat and navigating the numerous diplomatic challenges that may arise from the newly elected Biden administration, as well as hostile international forums, including the United Nations and the International Criminal Court.
Successive Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have been open about their attempts to push Netanyahu out of office over the years. And it is widely believed that the current Biden administration would have preferred the left-leaning and inexperienced Lapid over the battle-tested and right-leaning Netanyahu.
Nevertheless, Israelis have again decided that Netanyahu’s economic, diplomatic and security experience are worth more than any of the shortcomings that are associated with Israel’s most polarizing politician, including looming corruption charges.
Over the past year, Israeli citizens saw their prime minister deliver coronavirus vaccines to the entire population ahead of virtually all other nations. And while the rest of the world was reeling from the effects of COVID-19, Netanyahu also delivered the Jewish state’s most noteworthy diplomatic achievement in decades with the signings of the Abraham Accords. Both accomplishments were achieved while simultaneously balancing an unstable coalition.
With preferred right-wing coalition partners, Netanyahu may have an easier time advancing a domestic agenda that’s likely to include judicial reform. As many as eight High Court justices will reach the mandatory retirement age over the next five years. If a right-wing coalition can block the court’s own influence over the justice selection process, Netanyahu may succeed in changing the face of Israel’s overreaching and left-leaning judicial system for an entire generation.
Despite the decisive results, coalition building is never simple. Intense negotiations over budgetary allotments and ministerial portfolios will take place before a government is formed. And if small-party leaders place their egos ahead of the national interest, then an extended political deadlock could lead Israelis back to the polls regardless of the clear electoral results.
Of course, Netanyahu is also the shrewdest political negotiator in the system, having assembled more coalition governments than any leader since founding father and first premier David-Ben Gurion. Here, too, the advantage goes to Netanyahu over any combination of political rivals.
Meanwhile, Israelis have voted to the right in unprecedented fashion and placed the incumbent ahead of the pack by an unprecedented margin. For the foreseeable future, Netanyahu remains Israel’s man of the hour.
Alex Traiman is managing director and Jerusalem bureau chief of Jewish News Syndicate.