What a ride that was. We waited all day yesterday for the exit polls to be revealed because under Israeli law the media may not say anything about the expected results until the voting officially concludes. That came at 10 PM.
We were all relying on the most recently reported polling which came from last Friday. That gave the Labor at least a 3 seat lead over the Likud and, according to the press, that lead was widening.
Then we got a repeat of May 1996. Anyone who was in Israel then will never forget how that Election Day unfolded. Shimon Peres was given a slight lead over Netanyahu in the polls just before election day. That year was only one of two times that there was a direct election of the premiere.
Then after the polls closed Peres was declared the winner by a slim margin. But by dawn the next day it was clear that Netanyahu had won.
So too this year when the exit polls showed a virtual tie between Likud and Labor, only for the new day to show a 6 seat lead for the Likud over its main rival.
The so called experts have been spending all day today on the Israeli news shows trying to explain how they got it wrong in the exit polls. Instead of 27 seats each it ended 30 for the Likud and 24 for the Labor. Yet somehow the estimates for all of the other parties remained basically unchanged.
So what exactly just happened in the Israeli elections?
To answer that question I first need to break down the results. The numbers being reported as of now are not yet official so some parties may gain or lose one seat by the end of the week. They are still counting the votes of soldiers and foreign service people stationed abroad.
Obviously it was a big victory for Netanyahu and his Likud Party. In the last elections it formed a joint list with the right wing Yirael Beitenu (Israel is Our Home) Party. Combined they won 31 seats, only 20 of which went to the Likud. This time they won at least a combined 35 seats running again as separate parties.
He did it again, all the pundits are saying. He overcame all of the personal animosity that people feel towards him and all of the scandals which most recently included how his wife allegedly abuses the staff of the Prime Minister’s official residence and how he likes to spend public money on himself.
The Likud won at least 29 seats and may end up with 30. Yisrael Beitenu won 6, for a loss of five from the last Knesset where it had 11 of the 31 total with the Likud.
So how did the Likud do it? It convinced enough people who would have otherwise voted for right wing parties that it was crucial that the Likud win more seats than Labor if it were to be tapped to form the next government. The Labor made the same argument to the voters, but to much less success.
The right-wing Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) Party fell from 12 to only 8 seats.
So combined these three parties have at least 43 seats, the same as last time, but the Likud came out much stronger.
Yair Lapid’s secular/social welfare Party came out of nowhere in 2013 to win 19 seats in the Knesset. This time he lost 8 seats, almost half of his total strength, making Lapid the big loser.
The second biggest loser is Yitzhak Herzog who’s Zionist Union Party, which is basically the Labor Party with the addition of Tzipy Livni’s party, won only 24 seats. Last time the Labor won 15 seats and Livni’s Hatnua (The Movement Party) won 6 for a total of 21. While they gained a collective three seats they failed to defeat Netanyahu yet again.
Those 3 seats came at the expense of the left-wing Meretz Party which fell from 7 seats in the outgoing Knesset to only 4 – the minimum – in the new one.
As in 1996, the left is licking its wounds and wondering how it failed yet again. Most are saying that it failed to provide the Israeli public with a clear platform and reason to vote for it and instead relied on the mantra of “Rak Lo Bibi” (just not Bibi Netanyahu).
It ran basically a negative campaign which backfired and brought some people back to the Likud from the fringe parties.
Another loser was the Haredi (ultra-orthodox) Sephardic Party Shas. It split when its former leader Eli Yishai was forced out in favor of his predecessor, the convicted felon Aryeh Deri.
Yishai left Shas and formed the Yachad (Together) Party which failed to pass the minimum threshold of 3.5% of the vote in order to make it into the Knesset. So that makes Yishai another one of yesterday’s losers.
The Ashkenazic ultra-orthodox United Tora Judaism Party got 6 or 7 seats. It depends on the final count.
The Kadima Party, which was the only party other than Likud or Labor to lead a government in Israel’s brief history when Ehud Olmert was the prime minister from 2006-2009, fell from 28 to only 2 seats in the Knesset in the last elections. It did not even try to run again this time.
Another big winner yesterday were the Arab parties. Because the minimum threshold for getting into the Knesset was raised this time to 3.5% of the vote – or at least 4 instead of only 2 seats – they agreed to run together in a joint list. They did this out of fear that none would get in if they ran independently since none had more than 4 seats in the last Knesset.
The three parties have now gone from a combined 11 seats in the outgoing Knesset to 14 in the next one. But they will still be relegated to the opposition which would have happened even if the Labor Party had won.
But the biggest winner may be Moshe Kahlon, the former Likud cabinet minister who left that party last year after a heated dispute with Netanyahu over social welfare issues. He resigned from the government and the Knesset and formed his own new party called Kulanu (All of Us) which won 10 seats in the Knesset.
There is really no way that Binyamin Netanyahu can form a new government without Kahlon unless he forms one with the Labor Party and no one believes that this will happen.
So Kahlon is in a very strong position to get Netanyahu to commit to his social welfare platform.
So what exactly are Netanyahu’s options for forming a government now?
It takes a majority of 61 out of the 120 member Knesset to form a government.
Let’s say that the Likud ends up with 30 seats. Together with Bayit Yehudi and Yisrael Beitenu that comes to 44 in total. So Netanyahu will need 17 more votes.
Kahlon gives him 10 more. The Haredim combined give him at least 13 more votes, for a total of 67.
But some are speculating that Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman is angry at Netanyahu and will not want to join a new government. At least not unless he is promised that he can continue to serve as foreign minister. But it is hard to imagine Netanyahu committing to give Lieberman’s party any senior cabinet posts since it has fallen to only 6 seats.
In any case, even without Yisrael Beitenu Netanyhu will still have a majority.
Done deal, right?
Well maybe not.
After the last elections in 2013 when Bayit Yehudi had 12 seats and Yesh Atid 19 for a combined 31 they formed a joint block refusing to serve together in a government with the Haredi parties.
So Netanyahu had no choice but to agree to their demand in order to get a majority of 62 seats. He then added to that Livni’s 6 seats.
So what if Bennet does the same thing again and refuses to have Bayit Yehudi sit with the Haredim in any government? Netanyahu loses his majority.
Now what if Kahlon also refuses to do so? He will have many reasons not to want them in the next government.
In order to get his social welfare program passed the next government will have to either raise taxes or find places to cut spending or do both in order to fund it. But where will Kahlon find the money?
The easiest and most natural place will be by cutting subsidies to the Haredi schools where men study Tora for their whole lives while evading military service. Kahlon would also likely want to see cuts in the money that goes to Haredi schools that do not meet Israel’s education standards and use these funds to improve education in the country in general.
The Haredim will obviously refuse to agree to this.
Another problem is that Netanyahu has already promised the Haredim that he would roll back some of the parts of the law which his last government passed that ended the draft deferments for studying in yeshiva.
Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Benet, who was one of the people who pushed through the ending of the yeshiva deferments, may refuse to agree to that.
Without the Haredim the Likud will only have 54 seats to rely on. So what could it do? Netanyahu may need to ask Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid Party to join a coalition government with him again.
That would give Netanyahu a 65 seat majority without the Haredim. But is there any chance that Lapid and his people would agree to sit in government with Netanyahu again? While it is not likely, they may do so if it means keeping out the Haredim and pushing their social welfare agenda.
Moshe Kahlon, meanwhile, may be inclined to agree to form a block with Lapid in order to strengthen his hand on social welfare issues in the next government.
So before people on the right get too excited about the next government they should consider all of this.
The Likud’s biggest problem is still Netanyahu himself. People don’t like him and don’t trust him and for good reason.
Anyway the two people who really lost yesterday are Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni.
As I wrote previously, a defeat in the elections this year will certainly mean a short tenure as leader of the Labor Party for Herzog. His party’s senior people and rank and file were not so pleased when he gave Livni such a sweet deal in their Zionist Union joint list. The Labor Party only gained 2 seats this year.
Herzog will now go the route of his 4 immediate predecessors, all of whom were thrown out less than a year after a loss at the polls. That is except for Ehud Barak who lasted just over 2 years after losing to the Likud in the elections of 2009.
The only difference this time was that as of last Friday, when the polls showed the Labor opening up a wide lead over the Likud, its members saw victory in their grasp for the first time since 1999. This only makes the defeat worse for them this time.
Including the special by-election for prime minister held only one time ever back in 2001 when Ariel Sharon humiliated Ehud Barak at the polls, the Labor Party has now lost six straight elections and has not led a government for 14 years. It won’t for at least 2 more.
In the last 14 years it was a junior partner in coalition governments under Ariel Sharon for about 2 years in total and a very junior partner under Ehud Olmert and Binyamin Netanyahu for about 6 years in total.
It has not held more than 20 seats in the Knesset since it had 23 after the elections of 1999 and has not had more than 30 since the elections of 1996.
However, since 1996 the Likud Party has led every government except for 20 months when Ehud Barak was the prime minister from 1999-2001 and the three years that Ehud Olmert and Kadima led the government from 2006-2009.
And let’s face it, Kadima was really just a moderate version of the Likud formed mostly by former Likud cabinet ministers like Sharon, Olmert, Livni, Bar-On and Tzahi Hanegbi.
That leaves Tzipi Livni. Her Hatnua Party will surely cease to exist come the next elections, whenever that will be. Unless she is welcomed into the Labor, or joins with someone like Yair Lapid, then her political career will be over.
I will be posting more about the reactions to the election results from people on all sides by the end of the week.