Benjamin Netanyahu declared a huge right-wing victory after Israel’s exit polls were released on Tuesday night only to discover—as the votes were counted through the early hours of Wednesday morning—that the parties in his bloc had fallen just short.
It was a gut punch to Netanyahu who thought he had achieved an historic and decisive victory with 61 seats narrowly surpassing the 60-seat threshold to form a rare, stable right-wing coalition.
“You gave a huge victory to the right and the Likud under my leadership,” he crowed. “It is evident that a clear majority of Israeli citizens are right-wing, and they want a strong and stable right-wing government to preserve Israel’s economy, Israel’s security and the land Israel.”
With around 90 percent of regular ballots counted, his dreams of an unadulterated right-wing government were crumbling. Neither of the main blocs were on course to win a majority, setting the stage for another protracted round of coalition negotiations or, even worse, a fifth election in two years to be held in the coming months.
Even before another election can be held, Netanyahu could be forced out of office within weeks.
The full results, including half a million mail-in ballots, are expected to be announced by Thursday, but Netanyahu already appeared to have virtually no path to forming a new government.
While Netanyahu’s opposition is fractured, the results—if borne out by the final count—will dramatically affect Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and the first to be indicted on criminal charges. For the past year, Netanyahu has held onto power through a fragile power-sharing agreement which survived the opening of his trial on fraud, corruption and breach of trust opened last May. But without that agreement, Israel’s ragtag collection of opposition parties are expected to immediately vote in a new Speaker, and bring to the table a law that would prevent an indicted prime minister from staying in office.
As a result, Netanyahu finds himself a hair’s breadth away from losing power even though his party, with an estimated 30 or 31 seats, is the largest faction in the 120-seat Knesset.
All this after Netanyahu threw everything at this campaign, which would have secured him a sixth term in office.
He all but muzzled his ministers, making sure all public attention was on him. When the Central Elections Commission prohibited his party, the Likud, from adopting the health ministry’s vaccination slogan, “We’re coming back to life!” for the electoral campaign, he doubled down with posters of himself smiling above the words plastered on entire buildings.
Netanyahu spent the campaign’s final weeks belittling his rivals and attacking individual journalists by name. “The media,” he claimed repeatedly, “is a party unto itself. It is the never-Netanyahu party.”
Interviewed by veteran political analyst Rina Matsliah on Saturday night, Netanyahu pointed at his ear with the spiraling gesture that universally means “crazy,” and said, of her earpiece, “Rina, Rina, Rina, go on! Go on, Rina. Rina, Rina, you have anything else to say? You got any more for your loser app… you think anyone believes you? Anyone?”
After supporters of Netanyahu’s Likud party crashed an event at which his rival Gidon Sa'ar was speaking, throwing stones and eggs at members of the public, Netenyahu said that he condemns “all violence against all candidates, and especially against irrelevant candidates like Gideon Sa’ar.”
Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, a top Netanyahu surrogate, has been accusing the electoral commission of prejudice in an apparent preemptive move to cast doubt on the election should it not go in the Likud’s favor.
He made baseless accusations against the committee chair, Supreme Court Justice Uzi Fogelman, saying he took “bias, one-sided, illogical” positions.
“It’s a huge dilemma for the politicians running against Netanyahu,” Chaim Levinson, political analyst for Haaretz, said in a podcast for the news site Al-Monitor. “Can they become as merciless and amoral as him in order to win? Because Netanyahu will do everything to win. He doesn't have any problem… Netanyahu doesn't care. And if you run against Netanyahu, if you are not willing to be like Netanyahu, you’re at a disadvantage, because he is fighting without any rules and you’re fighting with rules. You are not trying to kick someone in the balls.”
In an interview, Gayil Talshir, a Hebrew University expert on polling, said Netanyahu’s predicament is a result of “Israelis’ exhaustion with the political system—not tiredness with Netanyahu.”
There was a five percent reduction in voter turnout on Tuesday mirroring exhaustion among the Israeli electorate after so many elections in short succession.
According to his rivals, that was Netanyahu’s goal all along.