JERUSALEM — When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for early elections in October, he hoped to emerge with a strengthened popular mandate for another term in office.
To cement a solid victory, he formed a joint ticket, combining parliamentary candidates from his right-leaning Likud party with those of the ultranationalist faction Yisrael Beiteinu, led by former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Yet on the eve of Tuesday’s elections, Netanyahu, widely expected to win another term in office, seems to be limping to the finish line. Not all has gone as expected, and he may end up with a more fractious and hawkish coalition than the one he has led, leaving him less room to maneuver.
The melding of Likud with Yisrael Beiteinu appears to have backfired. The two parties had 42 seats in the outgoing legislature, but final polls taken before the elections show their combined list dipping to a range of 32 to 34 seats in the 120-member body. If the real results are similar, Netanyahu could become more dependent on his future coalition partners to govern.
Many conservative voters appear to have moved to a rising religious nationalist party, Jewish Home, led by a dynamic young candidate, Naftali Bennett, who has cloaked his hard-right platform in appeals for a return to traditional Jewish values and solidarity among all groups in Israeli society. Polls show Jewish Home could emerge as the third-largest faction in parliament.
Netanyahu’s own party has lurched further to the right. Likud primaries in November elevated ardently hawkish members to high spots on the party ticket, dropping more moderate figures, such as cabinet ministers Dan Meridor and Binyamin Begin, to positions where they will be ineligible to hold seats in parliament.
“Netanyahu is at the head of a ticket he doesn’t control,” Nahum Barnea, an influential columnist, wrote in Sunday’s editions of the mass-circulation daily Yediot Ahronot. “Half of it is controlled by Lieberman. The other half is controlled by political camps, some of whom are part of the extremist settler fringe.”
Several of those high on the Likud list support annexing all or part of the West Bank to Israel and are staunch backers of settlement building there and in East Jerusalem. Opposition to a Palestinian state among Likud’s top ranks, contradicting Netanyahu’s public commitment to a two-state solution, prevented the publication of a party platform before the elections.
Bennett, a likely coalition partner with Netanyahu, is openly opposed to a Palestinian state and advocates annexing most of the West Bank while giving Palestinians in the rest of the area limited self-rule.
Those positions could severely limit Netanyahu’s options if he is prodded by Washington or European nations after the elections to renew peace efforts with the Palestinians. Dependent on a coalition pushed further to the right, in alliance with ultra-Orthodox parties, Netanyahu could increase settlement building and reject steps that might promote resumption of negotiations, risking further international isolation.
Danny Danon, a Likud back-bencher in parliament who came in fifth in the party primaries and is now ninth on the combined ticket, is a prominent figure in the rising hard right in Likud. In an interview, he said that he expected to “work closely with the prime minister” to promote his agenda.
“The nationalist forces within the ruling party are much more important than the coalition members,” he said. “Our agenda is to continue to build in Judea and Samaria and in all parts of Jerusalem. We say clearly that we’re against a Palestinian state. Look what’s happening today in Gaza. We don’t want an al-Qaeda state in our back yard.”
Danon said he was “waiting for the right time” to submit parliamentary legislation calling for the annexation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. “The long-term goal is that we will have a majority of the land with a minimal amount of Palestinians,” he said.
But Netanyahu, who in the outgoing government positioned himself between coalition allies to his right and left, may seek to form a more centrist coalition that could ease strains with Washington and improve Israel’s international position.
Analysts say Netanyahu could bring in Yair Lapid, leader of the new centrist party Yesh Atid, who has campaigned for ending exemptions from military service for ultra-Orthodox Jews and easing the cost of living for Israel’s financially squeezed middle class. Netanyahu could also invite Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister who has campaigned for resuming negotiations with the Palestinians.
A coalition with the centrists could leave Netanyahu with a slimmer parliamentary majority but make him less dependent on far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties to rule.
Ideally, Netanyahu would want “parties to the left of him and to the right of him so he’s in the middle and can call the shots,” said Peter Medding, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “He needs an ideological balance in terms of coalition management to keep it stable. If he’s the biggest party by a fair amount, he can play the left off the right.”
In a final campaign appearance Monday, Netanyahu predicted that his party’s slide in the polls would be reversed at the ballot box.
“I have no doubt that many, many people will decide at the last minute to come home to Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu,” he said.