Netanyahu squeaks by

Prime Minister Netanyahu votes. Photo by Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash90
Prime Minister Netanyahu votes.
Photo by Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash90

Tuesday’s election in Israel was Benjamin Netanyahu’s to lose.

And as Israelis went to the polls, it looked as if the three-term prime minister’s hold on power was slipping. The center-left opposition Zionist Camp of Isaac Herzog had opened a slender lead in the polls, so Netanyahu appealed to Israel’s right wing by reversing his position and declaring that there would be no Palestinian state “on my watch.” And he warned ominously that Israeli Arabs were “coming out in droves to the polls” to support his opposition.

Whether these moves helped Netanyahu at the polls was unknown at press time.

What exit polls did show is that Netanyahu and his Likud fought the Zionist Camp to a draw, with each party tentatively winning 27 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

But most observers believe Netanyahu is more likely than Herzog to find enough coalition partners who will give him a 61 seat majority in the Knesset to form a new government. The mix of small parties with an affinity to Likud is larger than those who would align with the Zionist Camp.

Should the 65-year-old Netanyahu succeed, his authority will likely be diminished, according to William A. Galston, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

“This was a political near-death experience for him,” he said. “And it was an entirely unnecessary one.”

In December, Netanyahu fired two centrist ministers from his government and called for new elections. The opposition was weak, led by Herzog’s Labor party. Netanyahu hoped that a new vote would lead to a more stable government. One of the fired ministers was Yair Lapid, head of the eclectic Yesh Atid party that was the darling of the last election, in 2013.

The other minister was Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister and Netanyahu’s peace negotiator with the Palestinians. In a move that shocked the center-left back to life, Livni joined her small party with Herzog’s Labor in a partnership called the Zionist Camp. Herzog astonished the country by announcing that in the case of an election victory, he would rotate the prime minister’s office with Livni.

This week, in an attempt to increase chances of victory, Livni withdrew as a potential alternate prime minister.

The political constellation has indeed changed. Aaron David Miller, distinguished scholar in the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program, said the tentative election results “suggest a fundamentally divided electorate which, in some respects, has marginalized both the extreme left and extreme right.”

Based on the exit polls, Labor has increased its size from 19 seats in the outgoing election to a tentative 27 seats in this week’s vote. Add the tentative 5 seats of the left-wing Meretz party and the tentative 12 of Yesh Atid and the center-left parties have 44 seats before they have to search for less-compatible coalition partners.

“Right-wing voters made a tactical decision and voted for Likud,” said Michael Brenner, director of the Center for Israel Studies at American University. “That showed they wanted Likud to be the largest party.”

On the right, the national religious Jewish Home party of Naftali Bennett won a tentative 9 seats (down from 12), and the Yisrael Beitenu party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, which ran with the Likud in the 2013 election, won a tentative 5 seats. With Likud’s 27 seats, Netanyahu has a natural constituency of 41 seats.

Netanyahu also has an affinity with two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, with 7 and 6 seats respectively.

“Right now, the so-called right, Likud and company, does not have enough votes to get to 61 and neither does Zionist Union,” Miller said.

“In every Israeli election there is a wunderkind,” he added. This time, that role belongs to Moshe Kahlon, who as Netanyahu’s communications minister won acclaim by breaking up Israel’s cell phone monopoly.

Kahlon left the Likud and formed Kulanu, whose focus is on socio-economic issues. Kulanu, with its probable 10 seats, could fit comfortably in either a Netanyahu or Herzog government. That makes Kahlon the kingmaker in this election.

When President Reuven Rivlin begins sounding out the political parties about who he should select to try to form the next government, Kahlon could throw his weight behind a national unity government. Rivlin himself favors such an outcome, with Likud and Zionist Camp serving together.

A unity government could signal a return to talks with the Palestinians and more accommodation with the United States, Brenner said.

But Galston said it could be just as brittle as the outgoing coalition. “It would be a unity government as long as it doesn’t do anything.”

Guy Ben-Porat, head of the department of public policy and administration in the Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management at Ben-Gurion University, said he saw little ideological debate in the run-up to the election and credited the two centrist parties, Kulanu and Yesh Atid, with turning it “into a very technical election” by appealing to Israeli citizens’ economic concerns. Polling last week indicated the availability of housing and the cost of living topped Israelis’ agendas.

But “Jerusalem, settlements, refugees — the two large parties and the two centrist parties have said very little about these issues,” said Ben-Porot. “It’s almost completely off the agenda. I think it shows on the one hand that Israelis are skeptical on the prospect for peace, so it doesn’t really matter who will be in charge, it will all be the same.”

On Election Day, Israelis of all political persuasions were taking advantage of the public holiday.

Gershon Swimmer, who moved to Israel in 2008 from Atlanta and was voting for Jewish Home, said he felt confident that Netanyahu would win re-election and wanted to push him further to the right.

“I feel Naftali Bennett and the party represent me,” he said. “He doesn’t want to give back land, he’s strong on the economy, and he’s religious.”

In Beersheva, Meital Dadosh, 21, who recently completed her mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces, said she was voting for Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party.

But Nisim Vaknin, 51, was fully on the side of Netanyahu and Likud.

“I think it’s a strong party and that Netanyahu is strong,” Vaknin said. “[Netanyahu] stands up for his principles. He doesn’t want to return West Bank territories; he stands up for his state.”

Noa Herman, 26, a student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said she was casting her vote for the Zionist Camp.

“I believe Herzog [is] someone who can lead and also represent all the different groups in Israel,” said Herman. “In our party, there are Arabs, Russians and people from the periphery and young people, so this party can represent all of Israel.”

Political Reporter Dmitriy Shapiro; and Joshua Runyan and Melissa Gerr from WJW’s sister publication, Jewish Times, contributed to this report.

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