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Israel's election: Five scenarios for what comes next

With 90% of the vote in from Tuesday's election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc is just short of a 61-seat majority in the Israeli Knesset.

Breaking it down: A broad anti-Netanyahu bloc is on course for a slender majority, but will find it nearly impossible to form a coalition. The results suggest that most Israeli voters want to see Netanyahu removed from office, but can't agree on an alternative.

Why it matters: If the results hold, this will be the fourth time in two years that Netanyahu has failed to win enough support to form a stable right-wing government. That likely means Israel's prolonged political crisis and Netanyahu's corruption trial will both continue.

  • Netanyahu's Likud is easily the largest party with 30 seats, but that's down from 36 last March and would be the party's lowest return since 2015.
  • If the center-left bloc maintains its 61-seat majority after all the votes are counted, it could appoint a new speaker and take control of the Knesset.
  • It could also pass a law, targeted at Netanyahu, to ban any member who is under criminal indictment from serving as prime minister.

The different scenarios, if the current numbers hold:

1. Netanyahu could try to reach a majority by convincing one or two members of a breakaway conservative party — led by Gideon Sa'ar and consisting mostly of ex-Likud members — to join him.

  • That's the simplest path to a majority government, but it looks unlikely at the moment.

2. Netanyahu could lobby the Islamist Ra'am party, led by Mansour Abbas, to support a Likud-led minority government in return for policies that benefit Israel's Arab population.

  • Some Likud officials and Netanyahu surrogates have already floated that unprecedented scenario, but many of Netanyahu's right-wing allies say they'd refuse to join a government that is backed by Abbas.

3. Yair Lapid — leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, which is running second with 18 seats — could attempt to form a government.

  • That's unlikely to succeed because it would require Sa'ar to join a government that's backed by the Arab parties, which he has vowed not to do.

4. Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Yamina party, could switch sides to try to form a coalition with the anti-Netanyahu camp. Despite only winning seven seats, he could demand to become prime minister because Lapid and other center-left leaders might be motivated to oust Netanyahu at any cost.

  • But it's hard to imagine him leaving the right-wing bloc.

5. Continued deadlock leading to the fifth election since April 2019 in August or September appears to be the most likely scenario.

  • Netanyahu would remain prime minister in the interim period.

What to watch: Abbas, whose party is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, has now become a major player. He left the Arab Joint List to run independently and is likely to win five seats.

  • Abbas is a new kind of Arab-Israeli politician who has declined to align himself with any existing bloc. He has expressed a willingness to cooperate with anyone who can deliver for his voters — including Netanyahu.
  • Lapid is expected to meet Abbas on Thursday to try to ensure he doesn’t consider backing Netanyahu.

What's next: The final results are expected to be published on Friday after 450,000 votes in “double envelopes” — from soldiers, diplomats abroad, people in COVID quarantine and prisoners — are tabulated. Given how tight the race is, they could change the political map.

  • In Israel's proportional representation system, surplus agreements allow parties to combine surplus votes in hopes of gaining an additional seat. This too can change the political landscape.

The process of determining whether it is possible to form a new government could take another three months:

  • The Central Elections Committee is expected to present the formal results on March 31, giving parties until then to make appeals or ask for investigations into fraud or miscounting at specific polling places.
  • During the first week of April, President Reuven Rivlin is expected to start the consultation process with the various parties, asking each for their recommendations for forming the new government.
  • This is the fifth time Rivlin will go through this process in his seven-year term. The consultation will be livestreamed to ensure transparency.
  • Around April 7, Rivlin is expected to hand one member of the Knesset a mandate to form Israel's next government, giving them 28 days to pull together a coalition. That process can be extended by 14 days, and repeated by another member if the first one fails.

If no member can form a government, new elections will be called.

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