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Polls are closed in Israel — and the early numbers look good for Netanyahu

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  1. Israeli exit polls, usually a fairly decent guide to the final results, are in. An average of three exit polls project Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud Party to get 27 seats in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, and challenger Isaac Herzog's center-left Zionist Union to get the same.
  2. This puts Likud in a slightly stronger position to form the next government, but it's very, very close. To understand why, you need to look to the results among smaller parties.
  3. Neither Likud nor the Zionist Union has won anything close to 61 seats, the number needed to form a government, which means either would need help from smaller parties to form a coalition. The right bloc outperformed the left, giving Likud a leg up in this process.
  4. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who has the ability to strongly influence the coalition-building process, is calling for a national unity government, which would somehow incorporate both Likud and the Zionist Union.
  5. The full official results may not be out until later in the week.

Here are the projected results:

exit polls

Based on an average from exit polls by Channel 1, Channel 2, and Channel 10. (Haaretz)

Why the smaller parties' results favor Likud

Even if Likud and the Zionist Union don't end up tying, and it looks like they will, it's not clear who will get to run the government. The Knesset has 120 total seats, and a majority of those seats is needed for a government. Either of the largest parties could secure a majority by putting together a coalition totaling 61 seats or more.

That means the smaller party results matter hugely. Breaking down the preliminary numbers shows Netanyahu is in a stronger position to eventually form a government — specifically, it shows why the right bloc's performance is good news for Netanyahu even though some of its smaller parties underperformed.

1) The right: Jewish Home, led by the charismatic Naftali Bennett, is religious and ultra-nationalist — staunchly opposed to a Palestinian state. Bennett and Netanyahu have personal problems, but their parties are natural allies. The exit polls show Bennett getting about eight seats. If true, this is a disaster for Jewish Home but great for Likud — winning over three times as many seats as Jewish Home cements Likud's status as the unquestioned leader of the right, which Jewish Home had previously threatened.

Yisrael Beiteinu, a secular nationalist party largely supported by Russian immigrants, appears to have gotten five seats. Yahad, a hardline religious party that splintered from the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party Shas, looks to have failed to cross the 3.5 percent of the vote minimum necessary to get seated in the Knesset. All three polls show Yahad with zero seats.

This part is bad news for Likud. Yahad almost certainly would have supported Likud. But Israel Beiteinu's leader, Avigdor Lieberman, is a canny political operator in addition to being an ideologue, and what he will do is a little more up in the air.

2) The left: Beyond the Zionist Union, there's really only one significant identifiably left-wing party. That's Meretz, long the majority Jewish party most in favor of a peace deal with the Palestinians, which is projected to win five seats. Compare that with the 13 total seats polling to go to the right-leaning parties listed just above. That's one of Likud's major advantages in forming a coalition — it has stronger external allies. The Zionist Union hoped to counteract that by outperforming Likud one on one, but that doesn't appear to have happened.

But the results in the center look a little better for the Zionist Union.

3) The crucial center: There are two centrist parties focused principally on the economy and domestic issues: Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid and Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu. Exit polls show 12 seats for Yesh Atid and 10 for Kulanu.

Lapid will likely support the left bloc — he was in Netanyahu's last Cabinet, but his disagreements with the prime minister collapsed the coalition and forced these elections. Kahlon is a more of a wild card. His new party is often identified as center-right, but he sounds a lot like Labor on the economy.

The Zionist Union should be happy about the center's exit poll results. Yesh Atid's strength will most likely flow to the left. If so, then the center-left (Meretz plus Yesh Atid) will actually outnumber the right (Jewish Home plus Yisrael Beiteinu) by four seats.

4) The ultra-Orthodox parties: The two big ultra-Orthodox parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, get six and seven seats in the exit polls, respectively. It's tempting to say this helps Likud, as the ultra-Orthodox parties are more naturally aligned with the right. But that's missing important nuance. Both parties could theoretically be wooed by Herzog with the right mix of concessions on economic and synagogue-state issues.

5) The Arab parties: This year, the parties that represent Israel's Arab citizens ran together for the first time in an alliance called the Joint List. The exit polls show them getting 13 votes, a historically impressive showing for the Arab parties. Theoretically, their concern for Arab equality and the Palestinians should incline them to support the left. The problem, though, is that they object so fundamentally to the way Israel's government works that they almost certainly will not join any coalition.

What to watch for next

moshe kahlon

Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon. (Gil Cohen Magen/AFP/Getty Images)

Though Likud has an advantage, nothing is set in stone. Here are four of the most important things you should watch for in the coming days as the parties race to form a viable coalition.

1) What Moshe Kahlon says: Given these results, Moshe Kahlon's centrist Kulanu party appears to be key to the eventual formation of any coalition. Israel watchers will be parsing party leaders' statements and actions for days to come to see if this happens.

2) Ideological tensions among the Zionist Union's possible allies: Given that there isn't an outright left-wing majority, any center-left coalition will depend on some uncomfortable alliances. Yesh Atid, a staunchly secularist party, might need to get over its differences with the ultra-Orthodox. The dovish Meretz may need to stomach a temporary alliance with the nationalist, anti-Arab Yisrael Beiteinu.

Herzog's ability to smooth over these differences will determine whether he can form a successful coalition, so it's worth watching how these parties talk about one another in the coming days.

3) The Arab parties' blocking maneuver: While the Arab parties are unlikely to join any government, they could very well choose to prevent Netanyahu from forming one. Before coalition building happens in the Israeli system, the country's president, Reuven Rivlin, has to give someone the right to form a coalition first. But parties have a role in this process: each party has the ability to recommend a candidate for prime minister. The president generally gives the first shot at coalition building to the party leader with the most recommendations — say, Herzog, for example.

The Arab parties could endorse Herzog without being under any obligation to join in a coalition with his party afterwards. Together with Meretz, Yesh Atid, Kahlon, and of course the Zionist Union, that could be enough to block Netanyahu from forming a government — and give Herzog a shot at putting one together first. We'll see if this alliance emerges.

4) Signs of a national unity government: It's theoretically possible that Likud and the Zionist Union could join together in a national unity government. Indeed, that appears to be what Rivlin, who has the power to recommend a national unity government, wants. "I am convinced that only a unity government can prevent the rapid disintegration of Israel's democracy and new elections in the near future," Ha'aretz reports him saying on election night.

In this scenario, Netanyahu and Herzog could end up rotating as prime minister. This happened in 1984, when Labor and Likud formed a national unity government. Labor's Shimon Peres served as prime minister for the first 25 months, while Likud's Yitzhak Shamir served as foreign minister. Then they switched, and Shamir was premier for the next 25 months with Peres at the foreign ministry.

However, Netanyahu has strongly signaled that he would not be open to this arrangement, saying it would be impossible to bridge the gap between Israel's left and right. But who knows what he would do if it was the only way to stay in power?