Just before Israeli citizens cast their ballots in the country's national election on Tuesday, pre-election polls predicted that the Zionist Union party—a merger between the Isaac Herzog-led Labor party and the Tzipi Livni-led Hatnuah party—would defeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party by a margin of several Knesset seats. Those polls proved inaccurate, but even if they hadn't, the current six-year Netanyahu era may not have been over.
By Wednesday morning in Israel, official tallies revealed that Likud won 30 Knesset seats, a comfortable margin over Zionist Union's 24. While that result essentially cemented Likud's position as the leader of the next government, Netanyahu may have assumed that role even with a less favorable election performance.
Unlike the American election system, Israelis cast votes for entire parties—not for specific candidates. The new Israeli government will be established based on how many seats each party wins. The president (Reuven Rivlin) will appoint the prime minister, who is usually the leader of the party that won the most Knesset seats. That party leader must then form a governing coalition of more than 61 of 120 Knesset seats with other parties, and the parties that are not included in the coalition become the “opposition.”
If the Zionist Union had overtaken Likud, as pre-election polls projected, Netanyahu could have still remained prime minister. In fact, that is precisely what occurred in the 2009 Israeli election. The Kadima party, at the time led by Livni, won 28 Knesset seats, and Likud won 27 seats. But Netanyahu was the one who formed the new Israeli coalition because he was able to get support from the right-wing and religious parties. Therefore, he became prime minister, and has held the role ever since.
In 2013, when Netanyahu was re-elected, the results were more clear-cut. That year, Likud-Beiteinu (a since-collapsed merger of Likud and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party) won 31 Knesset seats, with Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party coming in a distant second with 19 seats.