Netanyahu declares victory in Israeli election

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuReutersIsrael’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his ballot for the parliamentary election in Jerusalem, March 17, 2015.

Exit polls have been released in Israel’s national elections, and they show a very close race between Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union, with a coalition of Arab parties placing third. Both Netanyahu and Herzog have declared victory, with each claiming they have the support needed to form a governing coalition.

Israel’s Channel 1 and Channel 10 project the Likud and the Zionist Union winning 27 seats each. Channel 2 projects Likud winning 28, a one-seat advantage over the Zionist Union:

Crucially, the far-right Yachad party failed to clear the electoral threshold, potentially delivering a plurality of seats to Netanyahu while weakening a prospective right-wing coalition.

Meretz, a leftist party, cleared the electoral threshold and is expected to have four or five seats in the next Knesset and oppose another Netanyahu premiership — as will the Arab List, which gained 13 seats but is unlikely to sit in an even a left-wing government.

Herzog is reportedly trying to build a coalition without Netanyahu despite potentially finishing behind him. In a speech to his supporters, Herzog did not concede, and appealed to the other parties to form a “socioeconomic reconciliation government” that he would lead.

But Netanyahu has already declared victory, in a Hebrew-language tweet, proclaiming his Likud party had won a “great victory against all odds.”

He added that the “national camp” had won a “great victory,” too, in reference to the Israeli right. The furthest right-wing of Israel’s mainstream parties is projected to lose seats, with Naftali Bennet’s Bayit HaYehudi party primed to drop to eight or nine seats from its current 12, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu barely making it past the threshold for inclusion. A right-wing coalition still appears to be a likely but by no means guaranteed possibility, since Likud siphoned votes from smaller rightist parties.

But under Israel’s electoral system, the largest party doesn’t necessarily get to form the government. Likud may have out-performed some pretty dire expectations, but that doesn’t mean they will get the chance to lead the country for another four years.

The major exit polls don’t yet agree, and the coalition maths is anyone’s guess right now, even after the final vote is tallied. Israel’s one step closer to having a new government — but it’s still unclear who’s going to lead it.

Here’s a full breakdown of the exit polls by party:

Based on these numbers, right-wing parties own a slight advantage for a future coalition. Counting Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party — the election’s crucial swing vote — Likud, the ultra-orthodox parties, and the far-right parties account for roughly 64 seats. Left-center parties have around 58 seats if Kulanu is included and one of the ultra-orthodox parties or Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party decide to join with Herzog.

That means that Netanyahu’s path to power is much clearer than Herzog’s, but dependent on one or two swing parties. It means that Herzog can reach striking distance of a coalition, but only after an impressive but not inconceivable feat of political horse-trading that might involve the secularist Yesh Atid party coming to grips with ultra-orthodox leadership in order to deny Netanyahu another term.

It also means that the most obvious route to 60 seats is through a unity government with a rotating premiership: Each exit poll has the two largest parties combining for nearly half of the Knesset’s total seats.

Any government looks to be pretty unstable. A right-wing coalition means the often-pragmatic Netanyahu would lead a government dominated by the very right-wing parties that he was unable to whip into line this past year. And a Herzog-led coalition would depend on ultra-orthodox, secular, left, right, and center-right parties banding together to deny Netanyahu another term.

Bottom line: It looks good for Netanyahu, but there’s still a shot Herzog could find a path to 60 seats, and be offered to opportunity to form the next government.

This might be a big victory on its own. In the last election in early 2013, the Labour Party — the leading member of the Zionist Union — won 15 seats and did not field a credible prime ministerial candidate. Now, a Labour-led bloc has won as many as 28 seats, and is well positioned in the likely even that the next government doesn’t last until the end of its four-year term.

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