The votes are still being counted, but Benjamin Netanyahu most likely miscalculated when he decided to call for early elections in December 2014. As of now, the main question is whether this miscalculation will cost Netanyahu his job, or if he will somehow limp through, bruised and bloodied, but prime minister nonetheless. Given the exit poll results, the second option seems to be more likely, but the emergence of a new government led by Yitzhak (Buji) Herzog is also possible.
When early elections were announced, Netanyahu was widely expected to win his fourth term as Israel’s prime minister. However, growing dissatisfaction with the government’s policies (or more often, the lack thereof) and the merger between the Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah (The Movement) to form The Zionist Union (“Zionist Camp” in Hebrew) made the election much more competitive than expected. The Likud party and its main challenger were initially projected to gain a similar number of seats, but the coalition-building math clearly favored Netanyahu.
The situation changed over the last 10 days when the Zionist Union showed a small, but steadily growing lead, which nonetheless did not ensure its ability to form the next government. The last several days saw frantic attempts by Netanyahu and Likud to close the gap and the no less frantic efforts by the Zionist Union to widen it. Netanyahu took a sharp right turn, speaking about Israel as being in danger of having a left-wing government, accusing foreign powers of a concentrated effort to topple him, and finally promising that no Palestinian state will be established if he is reelected. The goal was to increase the Likud’s vote share by taking votes from the other right-wing parties, and in that Netanyahu ultimately succeeded. In the Zionist Camp, Livni, whom many Israelis view with suspicion, announced on Monday that she would forgo the initial deal with Herzog to rotate as the prime minister, hoping that the move will sway still undecided voters.
On Election Day (March 17), the main focus was the turnout. Likud made a last-ditch attempt to mobilize its base by claiming that there is a U.S.-funded and exceptionally high turnout in Arab localities but this claim was false. Throughout the day the turnout was indeed high, but still slightly lower than in 2013; by the evening it climbed up to the final 71.8 percent.
According to the exit polls and the already available voting data, the 20th Knesset, a 120-member unicameral legislature, is going to look more or less like this:
- Likud: 27-28 (up from current 18 but down from 31 in 2013 when Likud ran on a joint ticket with the Yisrael Beiteinu)
- The center-left Zionist Union: 27-28 (up from combined 21 in 2013)
- Joint List, a party that for the first time in Israel’s history was able to unite the Palestinian citizens of Israel: 13 (up from combined 12 in 2013)
- Yesh Atid (There Is A Future), a centrist, secular party that until recently was a member of Netanyahu’s coalition: 11-12 (down from 19 in 2013)
- Kulanu (All of Us), a socially oriented new party established by the ex-Likud politician Moshe Kachlon: 10
- Jewish Home, a right-wing, hawkish party with a strong religious component: 8-9 (down from 12 in 2013)
- The right-wing secular Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) headed by the Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman: 5 (down from 13 in 2013)
- Shas, an ultra-Orthodox religious party, supported mainly by the Sephardic Jews: 7 (down from 11 in 2013)
- United Torah Judaism, and ultra-Orthodox religious party: 6-7 (had 7 in 2013)
- The left-wing Meretz: 5 (down from 6 in 2013)
There are many reasons for Likud’s inability to easily win the election. The most obvious one is fatigue. Netanyahu has been the prime minister since 2009 and many Israelis want to see fresh faces and new approaches. This is especially true given the rather modest list of Netanyahu’s achievements, mainly in the economic and the social service spheres. Over these six years, Israel’s macroeconomic indicators remained solid but many in the Israeli middle class feel that they are worse off now than a decade prior. The combined effect of rising prices, an acute housing market crisis, struggling social services and collapsing health-care system turned many Israeli voters away from the government. Netanyahu’s inability or unwillingness to seriously tackle any of these problems further increased the public’s dissatisfaction. Against this background of the economically struggling middle class, the emerging evidence—right before the election—of Netanyahu and his wife’s state-funded lavish lifestyle and possibly criminal behavior caused public uproar and allowed the opposition to represent Netanyahu and his government as disconnected, aloof and corrupt.
Against all this, Netanyahu played up the security card and Iran, often invoking apocalyptic images and existential threats against which only he can protect the nation. This did not impress dissatisfied members of the Israeli electorate, but did increase Netanyahu’s popularity among the right-wing voters, making them switch from the Jewish Home and Yisrael Beiteinu parties to Likud.
Once all the votes are counted, the inevitable game of solving the coalition jigsaw puzzle will officially begin. Even if the Zionist Union wins more seats than Likud, this will not automatically make Herzog the prime minister. In 2009, Kadima, led by Livni, won the plurality but it was Netanyahu who eventually formed the coalition. Everything will likely boil down to Moshe Kachlon, the leader of Kulanu, and his decision to support either Netanyahu or Herzog. Kachlon, until 2013 a powerful member of Likud and the communications minister, left the government and eventually established Kulanu to focus on social and economic issues, which he believes Likud and Netanyahu neglected.
While there is little love lost between Netanyahu and Kachlon, Likud seems to be in a better position to get Kulanu’s endorsement. Kachlon’s views on security are closer to those of the Israeli right and many of his voters are dissatisfied Likud members who would be willing to return home if the party gets its social and economic record straight. Yet, even with Kulanu in the coalition, Netanyahu and his natural right-wing allies, Yisrael Beiteinu and the Jewish Home will have to gain the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties. This coalition will probably be just above the required 61 seats majority and will heavily rely on financial payoffs to the ultra-Orthodox, and ideological payoffs to the right wing and the settlers.
On the other hand, to build a coalition, Hergoz and his key allies, Meretz and Yesh Atid, will also have to bring Kulanu on board, as well as either the ultra-Orthodox (while somehow overcoming the total incompatibility of their and Yesh Atid’s goals) or the Joint List, even if only by convincing it to support the government from the outside. Another possibility is a grand coalition of the Zionist Union, the Likud, Yesh Atid and Kulanu. This scenario is strongly preferred by the Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, but seems less likely than the coalition of the right wing and the Orthodox parties. A lot will also depend on the final tally because even the slightest change in the distribution of seats might easily reshuffle the whole deck and trigger completely new coalition building dynamics.
Evgeny Finkel is an assistant professor of political science at George Washington University.