You can always count on Israeli politics to remain interesting and deliver surprises, and the latest elections did not disappoint. Israeli voters ignored predictions from the pundits, who had projected a landslide victory for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rightist friends. Instead, voters gave Netanyahu a fright and changed the country’s trajectory.
Netanyahu will remain prime minister, but Israelis loudly proclaimed that they want a different kind of government.
Voters have shown very clearly that Israel is not a country ideologically dominated by the far right. Those who have so confidently claimed that the state would lurch rightward were wrong, and the election tally proves it.
Israelis are largely a centrist bunch, whose political decisions are swayed by complicated geopolitical realities, which leads to confusion among the pundits.
Fears that the next coalition would be controlled by inflexible, ideologically-driven parties proved unfounded. Centrism, pragmatism, and social justice made the biggest gains.
The voting, of course, is just the first stage in choosing a government. Israel’s parliamentary system means people vote for parties. No party receives a majority of the vote, so the party with the most votes is asked by the president to try to build a coalition. The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, has 120 seats, meaning a minimum of 61 is needed to build a majority coalition; the higher the number, the stronger the government.
Ahead of the election, Netanyahu merged his Likud party with the rightist Yisrael Beyteynu (Israel is Our Home) expecting to win at least 40 mandates. Voters gave the joint party a deeply disappointing 31 seats. Netanyahu has been chastened, but he can claim more votes than anyone else, so he will form the government.
The real star is the telegenic former TV journalist Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party surprised with its second-place finish, garnering 19 mandates. Lapid is now the official king-maker, and he was the first to receive a call from Netanyahu in this coalition-building phase.
Lapid will play a major role in the next government. Netanyahu reportedly wanted to make him foreign minister. Unfortunately, Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beyteynu wants the job for himself. Lieberman, on leave to deal with legal problems, held the job until recently. He speaks poor English and his international reputation is so tarnished that he could barely carry out his duties on the international stage. Lapid would be a much better choice in terms of substance and effectiveness.
Lapid is a newcomer to politics, and like other new faces and personality driven parties before, his Yesh Atid could disappoint. But his success is emblematic of the priorities of the Israeli public. He will push a secular social agenda of helping the middle class, demanding national service from the ultra-orthodox, and working to revive the peace process with Palestinians.
Over the next few weeks, politicians will play arithmetic. Lapid wants to bring former foreign minister Tzipi Livni to the coalition. Her new party Hatnua (the Movement) garnered just six seats. The coalition could include the remnants of Kadima, the biggest vote-getter in the last election, left with just two seats this time around.
The opposition will probably be led by third-place finisher Labor, with 15 seats. It will include leftist Meretz, which doubled from 3 to 6 seats, and the various so-called Arab parties, which together garnered 11 seats. Arab voters, by the way, increased their turnout to 56 percent. Many Arabs vote for other parties, particularly on the left.
One big question is whether the Jewish Home party of the hardline pro-settler leader Naftali Bennett will join Netanyahu’s government. At this writing, Netanyahu had pointedly not called Bennett, whose party will hold 12 seats in the Knesset.
The call, however, will probably come. Netanyahu would like to build a large coalition that will protect his government from an early demise. If he stays too close to the minimum 61 seats, any of the member parties will have the ability to pull out and threaten his hold on the majority.
It was only a few months ago that magazine covers proclaimed “Netanyahu, King of Israel.” Israeli voters did not agree. In Israel’s democracy, they showed, the voters have the last say. And they don’t want a king, no matter what the experts say.