UPDATE 1:06am: With 99% of the vote tallied, Likud has opened a 29-24 lead over Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union, in a late right-wing voting surge missed by the exit polls. Though Netanyahu will still need Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu to build his coalition, this gap makes him the presumed next Prime Minister. The rest of the analysis below, as well as the seats counts, holds.
The first exit polls for Israel’s elections are in, and they contain some surprises, but few conclusions. An average of these polls, which were conducted by Israel’s TV stations, put Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union in a 27-27 tie. The next largest party is the Joint Arab List at 13 seats, followed by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid at 12 and Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu at 10.
Netanyahu, who was trailing Herzog by a multi-seat gap in last week’s polls, appears to have closed it by cannibalizing his right-wing allies, chiefly Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, which fell from 12 seats in the current Knesset to just 8. Likewise, Eli Yishai’s far-right/Haredi hybrid party Yachad failed to garner enough votes to enter the Knesset, presuming the exit polls prove accurate. The two major Haredi parties–Shas and UTJ–garnered 7 and 6 seats respectively. Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and leftist Meretz squeaked above the Knesset threshold with 5 seats apiece. What, then, does this mean for Israel’s next government?
It’s complicated. Essentially, Netanyahu has more paths to a coalition than Herzog, but either leader will be dependent on Moshe Kahlon’s centrist Kulanu party to form a government. This enables Kahlon, an economic populist and reformer, to pretty much dictate the contours of that coalition, whether a right-wing one or a left-wing one. He could even coax a national unity government containing both Likud and Zionist Union. Which will he choose?
On the one hand, Kahlon’s political roots are in the Likud, where he served as communications minister and built his reputation reforming the cellular phone industry. On the other hand, Kahlon left Likud due to friction with Netanyahu, who is famous for attempting to marginalize potential rivals, and his economic policy has more in common with the Zionist Union’s. Given Kahlon’s right-wing origins, the safe money is on him going with Netanyahu. But there is still the possibility that he prefers the latitude a unity government would afford him. He may even opt to join forces with Bibi’s many rivals to keep him out of government and effectively end his political career. In any case, Kahlon has announced that he will not make a decision until the final vote count is in later this week, and he is undoubtedly writing up his wish list of demands.
Meanwhile, other party leaders find themselves in less comfortable confines. Naftali Bennett, whose Jewish Home party cratered to 8 seats, may be worrying about his future, as his main selling point has been his ability to deliver votes. It was that promise that enabled him to rewrite the religious party’s constitution to allow it to run secular candidates, despite the objections of Jewish Home’s traditionalist contingent. Now that Bennett’s magic seems to have worn off, he may face that deferred insurrection.
Should Netanyahu continue as Prime Minister, there will be another loser in this election: the U.S.-Israel relationship. In the final days of the campaign, desperate to attract right-wing votes, Netanyahu disavowed his support for a two-state solution, putting him directly at odds with the Obama administration and the international community. This was after his speech to Congress about Iran had already alienated both the president and congressional Democrats. Another Netanyahu premiership, for however long it lasts, would see tremendous friction between the U.S. and Israel, and could result in the administration withdrawing its traditional support and veto for Israel at the United Nations, just as the Palestinians have ramped up their unilateral moves against Israel there. That said, Netanyahu could blunt such consequences if he opts for a national unity government with his Zionist Union rivals–rather than a right-wing coalition–and uses them as political cover to govern from the center.
Time will tell.