An Israeli election has again turned into into a cliffhanger, and it will probably take weeks before it becomes clear if prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu will be able to form another government.
Following the TV exit polls after Tuesday’s vote, Israel’s fourth election in two years, it was clear that the electorate was pretty evenly divided between those who want another Netanyahu term – his sixth – and those who fall into the “Anyone but Bibi” camp.
It appeared that Israel’s longest-serving prime minister would be able to cobble together a wafer-thin coalition majority if he could persuade the right-wing Yamina party to come on board. Then, on Wednesday morning, as the count of the actual votes progressed, the Arab Ra’am party crossed the minimum electoral threshold of 3.25 per cent, to the surprise of the pollsters, dramatically redrawing the electoral map.
Ra’am’s projected five seats in the 120-seat Knesset parliament means the support of Yamina will no longer guarantee Mr Netanyahu a small majority: he needs the support of both Yamina and Ra’am.
But there lies the problem. Ra'am, which split from the main Arab Joint List last month, represents the southern wing of the radical Islamic movement. The party is staunchly anti-Zionist, refusing to recognise Israel as a Jewish state – hardly ideal partners in what is likely to be the most right-wing, conservative coalition in Israel's history.
After Ra’am voted against Israel’s normalisation agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Mr Netanyahu made it clear it could not be partners, even if his bloc was short of seats.
“I will not include them because they are an anti-Zionist party,” he said. “I will not offer them a partnership or support, nothing.”
On Wednesday however, Likud coalition chair Miki Zohar – considered close to Mr Netanyahu – had a different message. "It is our duty to do everything we can to prevent a fifth election," he said.
Religious Zionist party
The extreme right Religious Zionist party, supported by anti-Arab racist elements, is considered a natural coalition partner for Mr Netanyahu. For it the thought of any deal with Ra’am is like a red rag to a bull.
Ra’am has also indicated it does not want to sit in a government with a party it considers anti-Arab.
Mr Netanyahu will have to draw on all his political skills to solve this one.
Reaching some kind of deal with Ra’am is doable. The party wants influence and funds to tackle the burning issue of rampant gun crime in Arab communities. In return, it may be willing to support a Netanyahu government. But bringing his far-right coalition partners on board may be Mr Netanyahu’s biggest challenge to date.
All the parties are waiting for the vote count to finish and the results to be declared on Friday. Then, after a long weekend which includes the start of Passover festival, the coalition negotiations will begin.
Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas is keeping his options open and plans to meet with Mr Netanyahu’s opponents, who still haven’t given up the idea of a broad right-centre-left-Arab, anti-Netanyahu alliance, but such a coalition looks unlikely.