With a desperate lurch to appease the far-right of the Israeli electorate in the final days before national elections in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was able to declare a re-election victory for his Likud Party early Wednesday morning despite a nail-biting campaign and a recent surge by the more moderate Zionist Union party led by Isaac Herzog.
According to final results, Likud took 30 seats in the Knesset (Israeli parliament), while Zionist Union came in second with 24 seats. The Joint Arab List, a newly-formed coalition of Israeli-Arab parties, came in third and won 14 seats. The Jerusalum Post reported on the seats won by other parties in descending order: Yesh Atid (11); Kulanu (10); Bayit Yehudi (8); Shas (7); United Torah Judaism (6); Yisrael Beytenu (6); and Meretz (4).
"Against all odds: a great victory for Likud," Netanyahu declared to supporters in Tel Aviv, shortly after Herzog conceded.
Netanyahu said he would swiftly form a new ruling government by joining forces with other far-right parties, including the pro-settlement Jewish Home Party (Bayit Yehudi) led by Naftali Bennett.
Head of the Arab Joint List, Ayman Odeh, described his party's third-place finish "a historic day" for Arab citizens in Israel. "Today we are giving our answer to racism and to those who want to exclude us," said Odeh. That silver-lining, however, seemed overwhelmed by Netanyahu's re-election, quite markedly built on the back of the nation's far-right forces.
In the days ahead of Tuesday's election, Netanyahu was seen widely as "desperate," lurching rightward from his previous positions as he disavowed the idea of ever allowing a Palestinian state, foreswearing the two-state solution, claiming the right to continue to build on Palestinian lands, fear-mongering over the potential voter turnout of Israel's Arab citizens, and denigrating all of his opponents as a threat to Israel's existence.
As the Guardian's Peter Beaumont reports from Jerusalem:
In the last few days [Netanyahu] made a direct appeal to national religious and settler votes vowing in unequivocal terms not to allow the creation a Palestinian state and promising to continue building in occupied east Jerusalem.
He warned in vague terms of a conspiracy by the left and foreign governments to remove him from office and on election day, and posted an inflammatory Facebook video in which he accused pro-Herzog activists of bussing in Israeli-Arab voters.
"The rule of the rightwing is in danger. Arab voters are going to the polls in droves!" Netanyahu warned. "Go to the polling stations! Vote Likud!"
Palestinian rights activists in the U.S. responded to Likud's victory by mourning just how responsive the Israeli electorate appeared to be to Netanyahu's fear-mongering and racist-tinged politics. "Between the two leading parties, there was little choice for those who want to see a just peace and equality for all Israelis and Palestinians," said Naomi Dann, media coordinator for Jewish Voice for Peace, in a statement on Wednesday. "Should either party form the next government, either separately or in unity, the occupation and military rule over Palestinians will continue. The vote for Netanyahu was a vote of approval for his racism and war-mongering."
Gideon Levy, the prominent Israeli journalist, also lamented in his column how Netanyahu's victory shows "how truly broken" Israeli society has become.
"If after six years of nothing, if after six years of sowing fear and anxiety, hatred and despair, this is the nation's choice, then it is very ill indeed," Levy opined.
Though Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, had yet to officially respond to Netanyahu's re-election as of Wednesday morning, Haaretz reports that senior PA officials said Netanyahu's recent statements prove the Palestinians have "no partner in Israel" when it comes to a peaceful settlement.
And as Haaretz columnist Ilene Prusher wrote in the wake of Likud's victory on Wednesday, the final, desperate days of the election offered the world a look at Netanyahu's "true face":
We learned that he has no intention of ever agreeing to a Palestinian state.
We learned what he thinks of the Arab minority in Israel, which he said should not feel threatened by his attempts to pass a nation-state bill, because this is still a democracy where citizens have equal rights.
But we learned, when we see him sending out tweets, texts and a video saying "Hurry friends, the Arabs are going out in droves to vote, bused in by the left"—we see in that moment what he really thinks of the 20% of Israeli citizens who are Arab.
Meanwhile, PA chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, did speak out on Tuesday night and indicated Likud's victory would only strengthen his resolve to pursue other avenues to end the Israeli occupation and subjugation of Palestinian people and lands.
"It is clear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will form the next government, 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, he told AFP.
And senior Palestine Liberation Organization official Yasser Abed Rabbo expressed his disappointment, saying, "Israel chose the path of racism, occupation and settlement building, and did not choose the path of negotiations and partnership between us."
According to Beaumont, Netanyahu now "appears locked on a collision course with both Palestinians and the international community" after disavowal of the two-state solution and his contemptuous declarations over recent days.
And Chemi Shalev, also at Haaretz, looks at what comes next—both domestically and internationally—for Israeli politics after an election which turned uglier than most could have anticipated:
[Netanyahu's] conduct in the past few days most likely increased prayers in world capitals for a victory by his rival, Isaac Herzog: sources close to the White House found if hard on Tuesday night to disguise their disappointment with the election’s inconclusive results and their distaste for the prospect of having to deal with the “new” Netanyahu, who seems even less palatable than the old. Many of them are hoping that President Reuven Rivlin will take the chestnuts out of the fire by pushing for a national unity government, which they have supported all along.
Netanyahu’s ability to undo some of the damage that he’s wrought in recent days depends on the coalition he sets up.
A narrow right-wing government with Bennett and Lieberman but without Lapid would be viewed as a manifestation of Netanyahu’s lurch to the right: no one in the world will hand him flowers, and no one will harbor much hope.
A national unity government, on the other hand, would quickly revive Netanyahu’s international credentials, though his recent inflammatory statements may have given the sizeable opposition in Labor the upper hand in the internal debate that is expected to erupt should the two parties enter into national unity talks.
Many analysts said that the elections were superfluous from the outset, but no one predicted how ugly they would get. The incessant focus of Netanyahu’s rivals on his personality rather than his policies, together with his own divisive us-or-them campaign, have now split the Israeli public into two hostile and suspicious camps.