In a stunning turnaround, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party won a decisive victory in Tuesday’s Israeli election, defeating its principal opposition, the Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog, and all but assuring Mr. Netanyahu a fourth term as prime minister.

With nearly all the votes counted, Likud had captured 30 of the Israeli Knesset’s 120 seats, with the ZU – an amalgam of Mr. Herzog’s Labour Party and the smaller Hatnuah Party of former foreign minister Tzipi Livni – taking 24.

Scrapping like a street fighter, the veteran Mr. Netanyahu used every trick in the book to overcome a four-seat deficit in public opinion surveys published just last Friday. His gentlemanly opponent, Mr. Herzog, waging his first campaign as party leader, didn’t stand a chance.

Having raised the prospect over the weekend that the so-called nationalists of the right might fall from power, Mr. Netanyahu surprised Israelis and the international community by tacking further right, rather than left. He announced he was abandoning his commitment to negotiate a Palestinian state – a long-time U.S. priority. Such an entity will not be created, he said, as long as he is in office.

On Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu launched a last-minute anti-Arab campaign intended to strike fear in the hearts of many Jewish Israeli voters, which appears to have made the difference in drawing supporters back to Likud.

Soon after polling stations opened, Mr. Netanyahu sounded the alarm in a dramatic video on Facebook. “The rule of the right wing is in danger,” he said. “Arab voters are going to the polls in droves!” The number of voters increased substantially later in the day.

“Against all odds, we achieved a great victory for the Likud,” Mr. Netanyahu told supporters at his election-night headquarters, even before final results were known. “I am proud of the people of Israel, who in the moment of truth knew how to distinguish between what is important and what is peripheral, and to insist on what is important.”

Rather than electors drawing away votes from the left, it was their choice of other nationalist parties that swung the results back to Likud.

Much of it came at the expense of the Jewish Home Party, a pro-settler right-wing party led by Mr. Netanyahu’s onetime chief of staff, Naftali Bennett, which finished with just eight seats, according to the exit polls. On Friday, surveys showed Mr. Bennett’s party in contention for third place with 13 projected seats.

Another party, Yahad, comprised of ultra-Orthodox and right-wing extremists, fell below the threshold for winning any seats in the Knesset.

In the closing days of the campaign, the veteran Mr. Netanyahu had targeted Mr. Bennett, saying that a right-wing government was only possible if the Likud leader got more votes than the centre-left leader, Mr. Herzog. The people on the right listened.

Yet, the first phone call Mr. Netanyahu said he made after the exit polls were announced was to Mr. Bennett. He said the two agreed to initiate accelerated negotiations to establish a right-wing government.

Now comes the messy business of fashioning a coalition. Mr. Netanyahu has earned the right to be given first chance to form a new coalition government of at least 61 seats, but it is not quite a foregone conclusion. The size of the nationalist right vote has not increased – Mr. Netanyahu merely rearranged that vote to give him command – and Mr. Herzog now is making the case for a centre-left government to take its place.

In the end it will come down to the wishes of the two main ultra-Orthodox parties that control 14 seats, and a new party, Kulanu, led by former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, that controls nine seats.

To form a working majority, Mr. Netanyahu needs at least 61 seats – with Mr. Bennett’s party, he has 35. Assuming he can convince Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to return, Mr. Netanyahu will pick up five more seats, making a total of 40.

At the same time, Mr. Herzog, though clearly wounded by last-minute developments, vowed late Tuesday night to “make every effort to form a real socially-minded government for Israel.” He told reporters he already had begun discussion with other party leaders about putting together such a coalition.

With his own bloc’s 24 seats, Mr. Herzog can count on the support of the left-wing Meretz party, with its five seats, as well as likely gaining the support of the centrist Yesh Atid party that looks to have 11 seats. With those parties in hand, Mr. Herzog has 40 seats.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin seems intent on fashioning a coalition of his own. No sooner had the exit polls announced a virtual tie between the top two blocs when Mr. Rivlin issued a statement: “I am convinced,” he said, “that only a unity government can prevent the rapid disintegration of Israel’s democracy and new elections in the near future.”

By “unity government” Mr. Rivlin, a long-time Likud speaker of the Knesset, is referring to a government in which the top two parties are included, and a minimum number of other parties are added to give the coalition a majority in the Knesset. The belief is that such a government, comprised of fewer, larger parties, will be more stable.

In the current situation, while Mr. Herzog and Mr. Netanyahu may agree on fundamental matters such as the threat from Iran and the need for economic reforms, it is difficult to see the two sides agreeing on how to approach the issue of settlements on the West Bank and the creation of a Palestinian state.

Left-wing leaders have attempted to discourage Mr. Herzog from entertaining the idea of a unity government. Shelly Yachimovich, the former Labour Party leader, denounced Mr. Netanyahu for his “racist” remark about Arab citizens going to the polls. No Western leader would have uttered such a racist remark, she said. “Imagine a warning that begins with ‘the rule is endangered. Black voters are heading in droves to the polls,’” she wrote on her Twitter feed.

For their part, Palestinians have expressed disgust with the whole affair and vowed to pursue their efforts at obtaining international recognition of their state.

“It is clear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will form the next government,” Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters. “So we say clearly that we will go to the International Criminal Court in the Hague and we will speed up, pursue and intensify” all diplomatic efforts to achieve statehood.


The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Mar. 18 2015, 1:07 AM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Mar. 18 2015, 8:27 AM EDT