The political scene in Israel was certainly “interesting” last night. As their elections were wrapping up yesterday it was obvious that it was going to be a close race, with everyone watching to see how many seats in the Knesset would be held by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and how many Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party could pick up. By the time I went to bed, both men had given victory speeches.

When the sun rose this morning, however, it looked like Netanyahu was going to squeak through with a win and the ability to form a coalition government. But this race truly saw him fighting for his political life. (WaPo)

With the vast majority of votes counted in Israeli elections by Wednesday morning, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked set to clinch a fifth term in office, outmaneuvering corruption charges and a strong challenger.

Although both Netanyahu and his main rival Benny Gantz gave victory speeches to raucous crowds at their campaign headquarters a night earlier, only one of them can win.

With around 95 percent of the vote counted, both Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White were tipped to win 35 seats in Israel’s 120-member Knesset, or parliament.

Bibi’s party appears to have 35 seats but he needs 61 in the Knesset to hold a ruling majority. That means that he’ll have to make good on his promises to the other, more conservative parties in his traditional coalition before his victory is officially secure. So how did things wind up on such a razor edge and how did Netanyahu pull it off? Our friend Jeff Dunetz, who knows more about Israeli politics than I ever will, has some good analysis for you. And it turns out that even if the Blue and White had taken several more seats, the odds are that Benny Gantz still wouldn’t have wound up as Prime Minister.

In Israel’s short 70-year history, no party has ever gotten a majority of the 120 seats in the Knesset. Every government has been a coalition. Therefore under the Israeli system, the election is just the first part of the political process, depending on the results once the votes are counted the politics truly begin.

Even if Netanyahu’s party Likud ends up 4-5 seats behind, Likud has more allies in the religious parties giving him a better chance of forming a government. Therefore Bibi may still be the one asked by Israel’s President Rivlin to form a government (BTW asking a party leader to form a government is the only real power held by the Israeli President). The Blue and White will have to build a big lead to control the Prime Minister in the next government because Likud has a better chance of forming a coalition.

As Jeff goes on to note, there are many smaller parties sucking up some of the votes, but a unique facet of Israeli election laws prevents the Knesset from splintering entirely. Any party fielding candidates has to meet a minimum barrier of drawing 3.25% of the vote. If they come in with less than that, they can’t enter the Knesset. That means that the more parties there are on each side of the ideological divide sucking the air out of the room, the less likely the larger, established parties are to garner more seats. Currently, that imbalance is working in the favor of Likud.

Netanyahu has been surrounded by scandals and ongoing investigations into his administration. That’s clearly opened the door to some challengers, but barring a major change in the final count, it looks as if they came up short yet again.