Rather than turning a new page (as most forecasts suggested), the Israeli voters handed another victory to Likud, the center-right (and now, right-wing-leaning) party of Bibi Netan-yahoo. That came as a surprise to most analysts, given the polls which seemed to suggest a stalemate with the main opposition party, the center-left Zionist Union. In the days before the vote, Likud was trailing on #2 in the polls. But Bibi sharply hardened his tone in the final week, and managed to mobilize the votes of the ultranationalist far-right. And now his supporters will be expecting him to fulfill his categorical election promises.
The snap election was called at the end of last year, because Netanyahu wanted to form a more stable government after some tensions with some key partners in the center-right coalition had emerged. Now the final results give 30 out of 120 seats to Likud, and 24 to the ZU. On the 3rd place (14 seats) comes a morass of parties dominated by the Israeli Arabs, who are united for the first time. All of this gives Netanyahu a mandate to form a center-right coalition government, but first he'll have to collect 61 seats to form a majority. He's about to chair a cabinet for the 4th time, and become the longest-serving Israeli PM.
He has stated that he's planning to form a government within the next 2-3 weeks. He has already talked with some parties that he deems potential partners, including far-right and ultra-orthodox formations, plus the centrist Kulanu party (10 seats). Their support will probably be the key factor, so Netanyahu was smart enough to offer them the ministry of finance to their leader Moshe Kalon, former social minister and communications minister in previous Likud governments.
There are three types of parties who could enter this coalition. One, the far-right formations representing the settlers, like Jewish Home. Two, those of the ultra-orthodox Jews. And three, the more moderate center-right ones like Kulanu. Right now, the question is if Netanyahu would turn to the centrist Yesh Atid party. He could have the majority without them, but still, getting them on board would give him a chance to come across as the leader of the entire center-right, rather than just the right.
In the days before the election, Netanyahu showed exactly why he's known as a formidable player. He managed to eliminate the distance from the ZU and even prevail eventually. That this happened in the last moment was only possible after a sharp turn to the extreme right, at least in terms of rhetoric. In a blatant act of backpedaling on prior commitments, he said he wouldn't allow the creation of a Palestinian state (although he later promptly toned it all down and said he does want a two-state solution, "but the circumstances have to be changed first"), and warned of the "horrible consequences" for Israel if he lost the election (but of course!). In his words, the Israeli Arabs were mobilized to vote en masse, so his supporters had to mobilize too and flock to the polls. He also made a series of outrageous promises, which if turned real, would hugely undermine the relations with the US and Europe (which are already pretty bad), like a promise to build thousands of new settlements in the occupied territories.
In his campaign he focused on topics related to state security, while his opponents and many voters consider the main issue of the day to be elsewhere: the deteriorating economic situation, the expensive living standard and the sluggish economic growth. In other words, it's again the economy, but Bibi has been either too stupid or cunning enough to avoid that topic - depends how you look at it. Because he knows full well that this is the one area where he has failed miserably during his tenure. But the larger part of the Israeli voters are still sympathetic with the right, no matter if they're nationalists, settlers or ultra-orthodox Jews. National security and the safety of the settlements in the occupied lands is for them by far the more important issue than the economy. For now. Obviously, there's still some room for deterioration before things get really unbearable, and the whole thing explodes into Bibi's face.
The leader of the Zionist Union, Isaac Herzog has of course congratulated Netanyahu for the victory, and wished him good luck. "This is not an easy morning for us and for those who share our direction", he and his co-leader Tzipi Livni commented. The ZU has criticized Netanyahu's domestic policy and stated support for finding a solution to the Palestinian problem that's based on the two-state solution, and promised to restore the relations with the Palestinians and the international community.
But it was the hawkish position of Bibi and his aides on this and other topics that has made them so popular among the rightist voters, although it did turn Bibi into a highly polarizing figure. And now chances are that this will deepen even further. In recent times, Netanyahu has led a very right-wing campaign, and has definitely won thanks to that. Having in mind his prior actions, we could expect that he'll stick to that for the most part from now on. Even if he eventually includes some centrist parties in his coalition, Kulanu and Yesh Atid are not centrist in terms of foreign policy, but rather in terms of the economy. So none of them would support significant concessions to the Palestinians, and they do share the same POV on Iran with Netanyahu. So if they join his coalition, the deal would be that they'd be granted economic portfolios, while the PM will be dealing with foreign policy.
From a Palestinian standpoint, the result of the election is a cause for serious concern, and will likely increase their determination to defend their cause in any way possible, including through the International Penal Court. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator in the peace negotiations with Israel (which failed last April), has said that the Palestinians will continue to pursue their goal of getting their own state. He commented that Netanyahu's victory has shown "the success of a campaign based on settlements, racism, apartheid, and the rejecion of fundamental rights for the Palestinians".
After the US elections, the EU and UN had said they were expecting Israel to continue the Middle East peace process. But later, the White House rebuked Netanyahu for having abandoned his commitments to negotiation and the creation of a Palestinian state, and condemned the divisive and marginalizing rhetoric that he used in his election campaign, which was clearly directed against the Israeli Arab voters. And of course, FOX has noticed that Obama did not immediately congratulate Bibi for his victory - not that this should be so surprising, given Bibi's controversial recent visit to DC.
The parliaments of France and the UK have already conducted non-binding votes on the recognition of Palestinian statehood, and Sweden has gone even further, officially recognizing the state of Palestine. The Western countries in principle refrain from such drastic steps, believing that everything should be settled through negotiation. But now that Netanyahu has clearly shown that he's abandoning the two-state principle, this argument has become almost impossible to defend. And meanwhile, the danger of a new bloody escalation in the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is lurking behind the corner. But maybe that's exactly what Netan-yahoo and his allies want. Because it could provide them further validation.