Never count out Benjamin Netanyahu. Voting has just closed in Israel, and the exit polls show either a tie between Netanyahu’s Likud and the opposition Zionist Union or a one-seat lead for Netanyahu.
Here’s a polling average courtesy of Haaretz:
Likud: 27 seats
Zionist Union: 27
United Arab List: 13
Yesh Atid: 12
Jewish Home: 8
United Torah Judaism: 6
Yisrael Beiteinu: 5
The speaker of the Knesset says the race was so close that the final results may not be published until Friday, but Netanyahu is already calling it a “great victory for the Likud.” This is an odd thing to say about a statistical tie, but it’s true that this is a much better showing for Netanyahu than what was forecast in polls at the end of last week, which had the Zionist Union—an alliance between the Labor and Hatnuah parties—with about a four-seat lead.
Attention now shifts to President Reuven Rivlin. The Israeli presidency is a mostly ceremonial position, but he does have the key responsibility of inviting one of the parties to form a government—namely, the one that can most easily form a 61-seat majority. At the moment, that’s Netanyahu’s, and he will probably get the first shot at forming a government. The Israeli right had an easier road to a coalition even if the old polls had been correct, and that’s even truer now. The Zionist Union needed not only to win, but to win big, and an “anyone but Bibi” coalition seems extremely unlikely now that it hasn’t.
A Likud coalition still isn’t guaranteed. As the Zionist Union is sure to point out, the share of the three parties in Netanyahu’s current coalition—Likud, Jewish Home, and Yisrael Beiteinu—has actually shrunk, meaning there will likely be a key role for the ultra-Orthodox parties. If the numbers above are correct, the right-wing and Orthodox parties combined have a total of 53 seats, and that’s assuming Netanyahu can wrangle the support of United Torah Judaism, whose leaders said on Monday that they wouldn’t back him. The ultra-right-wing Yachad party doesn’t appear to have made the 3.25 percent cutoff for representation. But if Bibi can keep the right in line and sign on the center-right Kulanu, the party of former Likudnik-turned-Netanyahu critic Moshe Kahlon, he may have the majority he needs. Expect Kahlon to make some pretty significant demands.
However, Rivlin says he favors a unity government involving both Likud and the Zionist Union, telling Haaretz “only a unity government can prevent the rapid disintegration of Israel’s democracy and new elections in the near future."
Before the election, the most likely scenario for that involved either Netanyahu and Herzog agreeing to a rotating premiership, or Netanyahu resigning in favor of another Likud figure. But if Netanyahu ends up as the top vote-getter in the election, it’s hard to imagine him agreeing to scenarios like that. He has previously ruled out joining a unity government. Either way, this is a long way from over.
A few other observations:
Netanyahu’s scorched-Earth campaigning tactics over the past few days, including a pledge never to allow a Palestinian state and an ugly, race-baiting warning about the high turnout among Arab-Israeli citizens, sadly seem to have worked. However, they worked at the expense of his right-wing coalition partners. In the closing days of the campaign, voters may have shifted from outgoing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s scandal-beset Yisrael Beiteinu (which, if exit polling holds, lost about eight seats) and Naftali Bennet’s pro-settler Jewish Home (which lost four) to Netanyahu’s Likud. Over the past few years, the big trend in Israeli politics has been the splintering of the old left-right blocks into a motley assortment of small parties, but this election seems to have bucked that trend.
Earlier Tuesday there was some specluation that Lieberman would undergo the ironic indignity of failing to meet the new 3.25 percent cutoff that he himself pushed for. He appears to have avoided that fate. But the new cutoff did have one unintended consequence. When it was signed into law in 2013, the assumption was that it would make it harder for Israel’s small Arab parties to make it into the Knesset. Instead, it led to the formation of the new United Arab List. That move, in turn, seems to have helped spur an upturn in Arab turnout that has made the UAL the third-largest faction in the new Knesset. After an election that now appears much less likely to change the man leading Israel, that may turn out to be the biggest development of the night.