TEL AVIV — Exit polls in the Israeli election show Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s Likud tied or one seat ahead of Isaac “Buji” Herzog’s Zionist Union, a merger of Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party. The polls appear to have broken to Likud at the expense of the smaller rightwing parties.
It’s good news for Bibi, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee he’ll remain prime minister. Israeli parties never win a majority of seats in the Knesset, so now begins the complicated process of determining the shape of the next coalition government.
The next stage is for party leaders to recommend a prime minister to President Reuven Rivlin, who will instruct the winner to attempt to form a government. The Joint List that combines the Arab parties, who have in the past refused to participate out of anti-Zionism, have indicated that they’ll likely back Herzog, a crucial factor in the center-left’s ability to form a government.
There has also been much talk of a possible national unity government in which Bibi and Buji would take turns as PM, an approach that Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir took in the ’80s. (The Zionist Union originally ran with the goal of a similar rotation deal between Herzog and Livni, but Livni announced yesterday she would forgo that arrangement to make it easier to form a coalition.)
Much depends on ex-Likudnik Moshe Kahlon, whose Kulanu party won 9 or 10 seats and holds the balance of power between the natural leftwing and rightwing blocs. Kahlon ran on breaking monopolies (partially a legacy of Israel’s socialist roots) and reforming the banking system to lower the exorbitant prices of food and housing, the key issues in a campaign that featured a broad consensus on the security issues that American observers care about.
But whoever the prime minister is, don’t expect the Israeli government to suddenly get behind the Obama administration’s ill-conceived approach to diplomacy with Iran.
Buji, to be sure, may not share Bibi’s personal disdain for Obama. But as Zionist Union candidate Nachman Shai said in an English-language debate Saturday evening, while the opposition is critical of the choice of time and venue for Netanyahu’s speech to the U.S. Congress earlier this month, “we fully support the [current Israeli] government’s policy towards Iran.”
UPDATE: In an unusual development, the exit polls — which in Israel are generally fairly accurate — appear to be significantly off, and Bibi’s late surge looks even bigger. As the votes have been tallied, it’s become clear that the lead for Likud over the Zionist List is not one seat but actually as many as six seats. The math now makes a center-left coalition practically impossible, and a unity government unlikely. Netanyahu will most likely lead a solidly center-right government.