JERUSALEM – Israelis woke up Wednesday morning to find that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud Party came in first in parliamentary elections. It was a stunning turnaround after a tight race that had put his lengthy rule in jeopardy. Here is how things could play out now:
HOW DOES A GOVERNMENT COME TOGETHER IN ISRAEL?
Voters in Israel choose party lists, not individual candidates, and seats in the 120-member parliament are allocated based on the number of votes each list receives. No single party has ever won an outright majority of 61 seats, requiring a major party — usually but not always the largest — to lead a coalition.
The parties have a wide range of platforms, including social or security issues or catering to needs of specific sectors in Israeli society like ultra-Orthodox Jews or Israeli Arabs. But overall, they tend to fall into one of two blocs — the nationalist and security-focused right wing or the dovish center left, which promotes social welfare programs and is more conciliatory toward the Palestinians.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will consult with the various parties before officially tasking someone -- likely Netanyahu -- with the job of forming a new coalition. If successful, he becomes prime minister again. If not, the president asks another party leader to try. With Netanyahu's natural allies holding a solid majority, he is expected to quickly form a government.
NETANYAHU'S ELECTION PROMISES
Netanyahu focused most of his campaign on his pledges to prevent Iran from obtaining the capability to make a nuclear weapon. But as he struggled in the final days of the race, Netanyahu began taking a tougher stance on peace talks with the Palestinians in order to appeal to hard-line voters.
In a turnaround of the policy he spelled out in 2009, Netanyahu said he opposed the creation of a Palestinian state, a centerpiece of U.S. policy, saying Islamic extremists will take over any territory Israel exits.
After largely ignoring domestic issues, he also vowed to resolve Israel's housing crisis and high cost of living — central concerns of his challengers.
HOW REALISTIC ARE THEY?
The U.S and other Western powers are negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program in an emerging deal that Netanyahu abhors. Relations with the Obama Administration reached a low point early this month when Netanyahu stated his case before Congress. It's not clear what else he can do to stymie the deal. He has hinted at a military option but that is unlikely.
Peace efforts with the Palestinians have been stalled for years, and there are no signs that they will resume anytime soon.
But Israel can expect pressure to resume negotiations. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the European Union both appealed Wednesday for a resumption of peace talks. The White House said it still believed in the two-state solution — even if Netanyahu no longer does.
With most Israelis disillusioned by years of failed peace efforts, domestic issues such as the housing crisis and growing gaps between rich and poor took center stage in the recent campaign.
Netanyahu hasn't detailed any real plan to resolve those issues, which brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis into the streets in 2011. But the new Kulanu Party, which focused its campaign entirely on bread-and-butter issues, is expected to play a key role in the new coalition.
RELATIONS WITH THE US
Netanyahu's actions during the campaign worsened already strained relations with the White House.
The Obama Administration was angered by the congressional speech, which was arranged behind its back with Republican lawmakers.
The White House said Wednesday it was "deeply concerned" by disparaging comments made by Netanyahu about Arab voters on election day and also said it was re-evaluating its positions following Netanyahu's opposition to Palestinian statehood.
Dore Gold, an unofficial adviser of Netanyahu, said the deep and longstanding ties between the two countries would overcome the latest crisis.
WHAT ABOUT THE PALESTINIANS?
Netanyahu's re-election created new opportunities and challenges for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. With peace talks off the agenda for the time being, he can pursue his strategy of trying to bring international pressure to bear on Israel with more gusto.
However, Abbas needs to maneuver carefully in his day-to-day relations with Netanyahu to avoid an escalation that could bring down his self-rule government in the West Bank.
After two decades of failed U.S.-led negotiations, Abbas is trying to break Washington's monopoly on brokering a deal. As part of this strategy, Abbas sought and won international recognition of a state of Palestine in 2012 from the U.N. General Assembly. Earlier this year, Palestine joined the International Criminal Court in pursuit of war crimes charges against Israel — though any decision is now up to the ICC prosecutor.