AFTER MONTHS of heated campaigning, Israeli voters decided to change very little. With most of the votes counted the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has won a fifth term in office in an election on April 9th. His Likud party tied with Blue and White, a centre-left party led by Benny Gantz, a former army chief. Both had about 27% of the vote. But the right-wing and religious bloc, of which Likud is a part, won a combined 53%.
That will give it a majority, probably with 64 seats in the 120-member Knesset (parliament), the same number it holds now. With several parties perched close to the 3.25% threshold to enter the Knesset, the results are still fluid. (Two have demanded a recount.) But Mr Gantz does not appear to have a viable coalition, nor a way to stop Mr Netanyahu from forming one.
As with the previous election, in 2015, early exit polls suggested that Mr Netanyahu had been weakened. His rival rushed on stage to declare victory soon after voting stopped. “A historic day”, Mr Gantz declared, telling supporters he would form the next government. While he made promises, Mr Netanyahu made phone calls. He received pledges of support from the ultra-Orthodox parties and a far-right grouping, enough to bring him within striking distance of a majority.
There were no signs of consternation as hundreds of Likud supporters streamed into the basketball arena the party had hired for election night. They had been in similar situations before. When Mr Netanyahu finally took the stage after 2am, most Israeli networks had revised their surveys to show him in the lead. On the screen behind him was the campaign slogan: “Netanyahu is in a different league.” The crowd was ecstatic. “This is a night of great victory,” he said. “The right-wing bloc will continue to lead Israel for four more years.”
That may be a challenge—though not because of politics. Mr Netanyahu has been indicted, pending a hearing, in three corruption cases. Prosecutors accuse him of taking gifts from wealthy businessmen in exchange for favours and offering legal and regulatory help to media giants in order to secure better press coverage. He denies wrongdoing. Strikingly, the allegations did not make him any less popular. On the contrary: Likud’s share of the vote increased by three percentage points from 2015. Its projected 35 seats are the most it has won since 2003, when Ariel Sharon led the party.
In an election that became a referendum on Mr Netanyahu, many Israelis appear to have voted strategically, favouring one of the two main parties in the hope it would be asked to form a government. It was an impressive showing for Mr Gantz, a political newcomer who faced a vicious campaign from his rival. But it came largely at the expense of other centre-left parties. Labour, which built the country and ruled for almost three decades, collapsed. It won less than 5% of vote.
Other Israelis did not vote at all. Turnout was 68%, about four points lower than in 2015. Parties that cater to Arab citizens received just 328,000 votes, a 26% drop.
The outcome, and the campaign before it, have deepened Israel’s divisions—not only between right and left but also between Jews and Arab Israelis, who are 21% of the population. Mr Netanyahu repeatedly accused his rivals of plotting to form a coalition with “Arab parties that oppose the Jewish state”. He encouraged an ally to join forces with a far-right Jewish supremacist party. On election day, in what looked like an attempt at voter intimidation, Likud distributed 1,200 cameras to its poll observers in Arab towns.
In another sign of Likud’s rough nationalist tilt, one of the new Knesset members celebrating her election was May Golan, an activist who led the campaign to deport African refugees from Israel. In the past Ms Golan failed to enter the Knesset as a candidate of the racist Jewish Power party. Now she will sit with the ruling party.
If he forms a right-wing coalition, Mr Netanyahu must pay heed to the demands of at least four other parties. Those representing the Ultra-Orthodox will want to preserve their exemption from the army draft and secure other giveaways on issues of religion and state. His hawkish partners will want him to fulfil a promise, made in the campaign’s final days, to start annexing parts of the occupied West Bank. That step would raise profound diplomatic and existential questions for Israel. The American president, Donald Trump, is expected to present his own peace plan soon. The Palestinian leadership, enraged at many of Mr Trump’s policies, will almost certainly reject it. Senior Likud members say that will clear the path for annexation.
Mr Netanyahu, for his part, will be worried about his future. Wing 10 of Israel’s Maasiyahu jail is designed to hold former prime ministers. His predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was imprisoned there for taking bribes. With the election over, Mr Netanyahu’s lawyers will receive dossiers of evidence to prepare for pre-trial hearings, expected in the coming months. His allies have proposed a bill that would shield a sitting prime minister from prosecution. Some of his prospective coalition partners oppose it. Mr Netanyahu may seek to win their support by making other concessions. If he fails, his fifth term may be a short one.