By Dr Toby Greene, Director of Research at BICOM (Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre)
Israeli elections usually defy pollsters predictions, but Tuesday’s result is especially surprising. The Israeli political commentariat widely anticipated a poor showing for Likud, claiming the party looked jaded and its leader out of touch. Even Netanyahu himself appeared to fear disaster. But he won back voters supporters with a late campaign blitz in which he stressed security threats facing Israel, and convinced voters that wanted him to remain prime minister that his premiership was in danger.
His surge came mainly at the expense of other right wing parties, especially Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home and the hard-right Yahad, the latter failing to reach the threshold.
Consequently, the balance between left, centre and right is not very different from that predicted, but critically, Likud is by far the largest party. Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog’s hopes to receive a presidential nomination to form a government depended on emerging as leader of clearly the largest party. There is a conceivable ‘anyone but Bibi’ coalition that could be formed around Herzog, but it would require strange bedfellows, and would seem out of step with the expressed will of the public.
The fact that Zionist Union finished so far behind Likud will be seen as a failure. The party won close to the total it had been predicted by pollsters, and its 24 seats is more that Labour and Livni’s Hatnua won separately in 2013 (21). But the campaign did not convince enough voters that they offered a credible alternative to Netanyahu.
Many questions will be asked about the rotation agreement between Herzog and Livni, the ‘two heads are better than one’ approach in the early stages of the campaign, and negative: ‘It’s us or him’ messaging. Only in the final weeks did Zionist Union respond to the fact that Livni was a drain on the ticket, and attempt to refocus primarily on branding Herzog positively as a credible Prime Minister. The decision to jettison the rotation on the eve of polling day to woo last minute undecideds was a zig zag that apparently did them no favours. The strong showing by the newly formed United Arab list may also have cost Zionist Union seats.
Netanyahu’s stated reason for calling the election was a stronger personal mandate and more stable coalition. To the surprise of many, Netanyahu has succeeded on the first count. Running a joint list with Yisrael Beitenu in 2013, Likud had just 18 seats, and now it has 29. Whether Netanyahu can indeed form a stable coalition, and in particular one that can pass a budget within the legally mandated period after its formation, is the next question.
The self-identifying right or national parties, in addition to the ultra-Orthodox, account for 57 seats. To get to a 61 seat majority Netanyahu needs to bring in at least one party from the centre. Both Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Kulanu party leader Mosh Kahlon have been fiercely critical of Netanyahu, and will drive a hard bargain. Kahlon, one of the biggest winners of the night having won 10 seats largely at the expense of Yesh Atid, will be in a pivotal position.
Dr. Toby Greene is the Director of Research at BICOM and deputy editor of Fathom @toby_greene_