Note: For numbers, I'm going to rely on this average of exit polls, though of course final allocation of MKs may vary. Those results are as follows (parenthetical indicates current seats):
Zionist Union: 27 (21 -- Labor 15, Hatnuah 6)The main potential shake-up at this stage is if the far-right Yahud party squeaks over threshold and takes four seats. If it does, those seats would likely come at the expense of one each from Zionist Union, Kulanu, Yesh Atid, and the United Arab List -- in other words, a pretty substantial right-ward swing.
Likud: 27 (18 [previously in coalition with Yisrael Beiteinu which added another 13 MKs])
United Arab List: 13 (11 across three parties)
Yesh Atid: 12 (19)
Kulanu: 10 (N/A)
Jewish Home: 8 (12)
Shas: 7 (11)
United Torah Judaism: 6 (7)
Meretz: 5 (6)
Yisrael Beitenu: 5 (13)
Okay, without further delay, here are the highlights as I understand them.
Bibi the Cannibal. The main headlines you're reading now talk about Likud's late-breaking surge to either tie or exceed the vote count for the left-of-center Zionist Union. And while that's true, it's also misleading -- the question is where those votes came from. It appears that for the most part, Bibi cannibalized votes from other, further right-wing parties. Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home is at 8 seats and Yisrael Beytanu is down to a mere 5. The upshot is that those three parties dropped from 43 to 40 MKs.
Many attribute Likud's late turnaround to him taking a hard right turn in the final days of the campaign -- capped off by his best Paul Revere cum Pam Geller cry of "the Arabs are coming!" Now that the immediate danger of a liberal landslide has dissipated, he's sounding more conciliatory notes by promising to promote the welfare of "all of Israel's Jewish and non-Jewish citizens."
The Arabs are coming. Racist though its intent and effect may have been, Bibi was at least descriptively accurate -- this was an election where the Israeli Arab community flexed its political muscle. Two additional seats in the Knesset may not seem like a ton, but becoming the third biggest party (behind traditional powerhouses Likud and Labor) is no small thing. And having united under a single banner, the UAL is poised to wield unprecedented influence in the next Knesset. Indeed, the big question now is whether the Arab parties will break their long-standing policy of refusing to join the government. Of the constituent elements of the UAL, only Balad (a pan-Arab nationalist party) seems absolutely implacably opposed to such an arrangement. Sufficient incentives from Labor could encourage a UAL split and a landmark moment in Israeli political history.
Whose coalition is it, anyway? People keep talking about the right-wing having an easier path to forming a government than the left. And, well, maybe ... but it isn't really as straightforward as that. Canvassing the results, the right bloc starts with 40 MKs (from Likud, Jewish Home, and Yisrael Beiteinu). Add another 13 from the religious UTJ and Shas and they're up to 53. To get over that 61 vote hump, they need somebody else -- and pretty much the only plausible "somebody else" is Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu party. Though running an avowedly centrist campaign, Kulanu's conservative roots have caused many to slot them into the right-wing camp. This is an evaluation I continue to pushback against. Kahlon is, to put it mildly, no fan of Bibi's. And I am extremely skeptical that he wants to be the furthest left member of the government coalition. The political positions he's run on bear a lot in common with the Zionist Union. Moreover, Kulanu's highest-profile member, former US Ambassador Michael Oren, has expressed significant concern over the deterioration of the US/Israel relationship, and he has to know that this would accelerate in dramatic fashion under a purely right-wing government.
So what about a left-wing government? They start with 44 MKs via Zionist Union, Yesh Atid, and Meretz -- with another 13 if UAL was in the picture. In that case, Kulanu's additional 10 MKs puts them over the top, and one has to think Herzog will pull out every stop to make that happen. But assuming that isn't in the cards, Isaac Herzog's path to the Prime Minister's office becomes much harder. Adding in Kulanu puts the center-left camp to 54, but it would be well-nigh impossible for him to get above that because the religious parties and Yesh Atid are mortal enemies. Perhaps he could buy them off, but it seems more likely that they'd be able to fit into a right-wing government without as much trouble.
The final alternative is a unity government combining Likud and the Zionist Union with Kulanu. Those three parties alone carry more than 60 MKs (and that coalition could probably bring in Yesh Atid too). It's not clear whether ZU or Likud really would like that (though it might be the best option available to ZU). But I have to think Kulanu would really like that -- it'd be a centrist party in a centrist government. The other party which would be a big winner in this arrangement would be none other than the UAL. It would become leader of the opposition as the largest party outside of government -- arguably the best possible outcome for the Arab list because being head of opposition means they are incorporated into many high level security and policy decisions. It's a way to "enter government" without actually entering government.
Kahlon the Kingmaker. Ultimately, the results of this election really boil down to Kulanu and what it wants. Does it want a pure right-wing government? It can easily make that happen. Does it want a left-wing government? Harder, but potentially still doable with the right suasion. Does it want a centrist government? If it holds out for one, it's hard to see how either of the big parties can avoid it. All roads lead through Moshe Kahlon. And since my gut tells me he doesn't want to be part of a hard-right, anti-Arab, and internationally isolated coalition, my sense is that he'll be able to force an outcome that isn't great, but isn't catastrophic either.
UPDATE: ...or the exit polling could be entirely off and Likud has a five seat advantage over Labor. Incredibly, this doesn't change the above analysis that much -- the right core now sits at 44 MKs, with another 14 from the religious bloc. So it'd still need Kulanu. But with these results it is easier for Netanyahu to claim a mandate.
If I'm trying to salvage anything, it's that (a) it looks like Yahud is still out in the cold, and (b) a very thin majority of voters voted for non-right-wing, non-religious parties. The center, left, and UAL together combine for 62 seats.