Netanyahu Weakened in Close Israeli Election

The hum-drum campaign has suddenly produced election results that may leave Israeli politics unsettled for a while

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Menahem Kahana / AFP / Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister and chairman of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters in the Tel Aviv party headquarters on Jan. 23, 2013.

Updated: Jan. 23, 2013 at 5:00 a.m. EST

If Israel’s campaign was something less than compelling, election night made up for it. When polling places closed at 10 p.m. local time, the country’s three major television stations were free to reveal the results of exit polls gathered from voters who had turned out in surprisingly large numbers. None had the weight of actual results, which would take all night to tally, but all the surveys found the same thing: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was staggered. With a projected 31 seats in the next Knesset, or parliament, his faction would nominally remain the largest. But that faction entered the campaign with a lot more seats, 42, than it came out with, so the “victory” — if the exit polls are truly representative — was an extraordinarily feeble one. Indeed, by Wednesday it was clear that Netanyahu had kept his job—but barely.

In terms of perception, the clear winner was Yair Lapid, a former anchorman and newspaper columnist who was running his first campaign. Late-deciding voters broke heavily for his centrist party, called Yesh Atid (There Is a Future). Two polls gave it 19 seats and a third poll 18; on Wednesday, unofficial returns had him at 19. That was good enough for second place, ahead of the Labor Party, which the preliminary count gave 15 seats, a bit lower than expected, also running on economic issue.  Overall, unofficial returns showed the Knesset perfectly divided between right and center-left: Each bloc claimed 60 seats.

(MORE: Behind the Story: TIME’s Karl Vick Discusses Israel’s Elections)

Within that balanced universe, Lapid and Netanyahu essentially tied and it’s been reported that coalition talks are set to start. Having merged his Likud party with the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party of ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman for purposes of the elections, Netanyahu can personally claim leadership of only two-thirds of the 31 seats. “The Likud and Yesh Atid are now the same size,” Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit maintained on Channel 1. “So these are two people, one who failed and one who succeeded. The question is, Can they work together? If they can, this could lead to the formation of a right wing–center government.”

Netanyahu signaled his appetite for just that as soon as the polls closed, posting on his Facebook page that the next government should be “as broad a coalition as possible” and phoning Lapid after polls closed to coax him toward a coalition. For his part, Lapid has pointedly refused to forswear forming a government led by Netanyahu — not least, the conventional wisdom went, because he’s never held office and could stand the seasoning of a ministerial post before presuming to take on the top job.

But the gap between Israel’s center-left and right-wing parties appears to be so narrow — indeed, tied — that other outcomes become plausible. The Labor Party immediately began beating the drum to oust Netanyahu, arguing that Lapid ran against the platforms of other parties Netanyahu would likely invite to form a government. The outcome carried significant implications: though both Lapid and Labor ran chiefly on economic issues, both also favor renewing peace talks with the Palestinians, which have languished under Netanyahu — and were flatly ruled out by the settler-activists who swarmed the Likud primary and who dominated the Jewish Home party that had challenged him from the right.

(PHOTOS: Palestinians Take to the West Bank’s Streets in Protest)

“This is electoral chaos,” said Mickey Rosenthal, a Labor candidate. “A government consisting of the Likud, Yesh Atid and the Jewish Home will be divided on core issues. We will now try to form a blocking majority and a center-left government. I hope that Yesh Atid will not mislead its voters and take its seats to Netanyahu.”

The night demonstrated the fluid nature of Israeli electoral politics, at least at the party level. Not four years ago, the largest vote getter was a center-right party called Kadima, which actually won one more seat than Netanyahu’s Likud. But Netanyahu was more adept at gathering “natural partners” into a coalition and formed the government. Meanwhile, Kadima imploded: the exit polls show it failing to qualify for even one seat. Many of its former supporters clearly migrated to Lapid, who staked out positions aimed at the dead center of Israeli society.

“We were very clear, we said that the middle class could not be trampled and it was the middle class that showed up at the polling stations,” Meir Cohen of Yesh Atid said on Channel 1.

Netanyahu was hampered by a remarkably lackluster campaign, his alliance with Lieberman — who began the campaign by resigning as Foreign Minister after being indicted for fraud — and by challenges from his right flank. Under former commando and hi-tech success story Naftali Bennett, the pro-settler Jewish Home party broadened its appeal to Israeli youth, gathering tens of thousands of voters who might have otherwise cast ballots for Netanyahu. The party tied with the religious Shas party for fourth place with 11 seats, less than indicated by earlier surveys. Bennett told TIME in early January that he feared his party was peaking too soon. It may well have. One prominent Israeli pollster was quoted as saying voters migrated from Bennett’s party to Lapid’s in the last two weeks, as Netanyahu surrogates took aim at the positions of Jewish Home’s more extreme candidates.

In the first flush of the exit polls, pundits gravitated toward a consensus prediction that Netanyahu would manage to continue as Prime Minister, but only by assembling a coalition so unstable that new elections would follow relatively soon. But it was all just talk until the actual votes were tallied — at which point meaningful negotiations would begin. “Anything is possible,” said Yitzhak Herzog, the No. 2 figure in Labor. “It’s enough for one party to rise a bit and one to drop, and the entire bloc changes. If this is the case — and we’ll have to wait for the end of the night — in this case, Yesh Atid and the Labor Party are the core of a different coalition for Israel.”

In Israeli politics, governing coalitions typically are formed within a week after the elections, and this one just got a whole lot more interesting.

MORE: The West Bank’s 2012: The Year of the Israeli Settlement

29 comments
HerbertKaine
HerbertKaine

always interesting to see  the rodents that Herr Karl Vick brings out of the woodwork-kind of like the Pied Piper

IrishSundae
IrishSundae

Israel needs moderates with outside the box thinkers.

RobertAnnable
RobertAnnable

Bibi is going to have quite a time to get the government and the public to go for a war with Iran, with no assistence from the US. If he keeps up his incessant war-mongering he won't be around much longer. Sorry Bibi, we are not going to fight another war for you. Iran is your "existential threat" not ours. It is going to be funny watching this. Bibi you made a big mistake interceding in the US election for Romney. Very big mistake!

smehgol
smehgol

To speak factually about the Netanyahu's Israel is typically reported as antisemitism. Would that America's leaders find the courage to do so. Israel has the world's fourth most powerful military which malevolently besieges and imposes the apartheid occupation of Palestine. The Jewish state kills to further its paranoid pursuit of invulnerability, territorial conquest and supremacist empire in, and beyond, the Mideast. The Palestinians, with no chance of prevailing, are driven by decades of Israeli imposed deprivation and desperation. The Jews enjoy a kill ratio near one hundred to one.


MarcChamot
MarcChamot

So what is this about, a narrow win for Netanyahu in the eyes of Ant-Semites? And Obama's victory over Romney, wasn't that a narrow victory too? So, then why does Obama think he's got a mandate to keep passing liberal trash?

BettyJohnson
BettyJohnson

Rising centrist?  In Time magazine speak, that means a liberal.

superlogi
superlogi

@RobertAnnable I assume you're a progressive liberal who's antipathy for the military is a primary principle of your ideology?  Here's what another very liberal philosopher and economist said about people like you.


War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.John Stuart Mill
English economist & philosopher (1806 - 1873)

RobertAnderson
RobertAnderson

@RobertAnnable Yeah, Iran with nuclear capabilty is no threat to us at all...Please tell me your little comment was steeped with sarcasm, because otherwise, you are an ignorant fool that doesn't speak for most Americans

superlogi
superlogi

@smehgol And, what if those leaders support their allies in keeping the world a freer and less dangerous place?  It appears when they do, people like you call them racists.  But really, why do people like you even worry about it?  With no draft to be concerned about, you'll never be called upon to support them anyway.

RobertAnnable
RobertAnnable

@MarcChamot Actually Obama's win over Romney was far more of a landslide then the Israel election, since obviously Netanyahu is still PM and Romney has disappeared. So Obama has a huge mandate and Bibi is going to have a rough time even with his war-mongering.

jitty015
jitty015

@MarcChamot You must not understand the difference between the American system vs. the Israeli system. We don't have a parliament. We have a bicameral legislature, the composition of which does not affect the building of the government nor the elevation of the leader. Netanyahu is wholly dependent upon the building of coalitions to rule; the stability of his coalition, built from multiple parties, dictates whether or not there will be elections again very soon. President Obama won the Presidency by a tally of 51% to 47% in a country with two parties and elects its chief executive separately from its legislators. So, I'm sorry that you don't care for our President, but by virtue of his clear victory over his sole opponent, the American people selected his agenda over that of his opponents. That would be a mandate.

jmac
jmac

@BettyJohnson  "In Time . . speak."  You might have a point if you consider Reagan a liberal.  He'd be toast in today's Republican party.  Nixon also - he did get Obama to pass his health care plan.  

eljin123
eljin123

HA HA very funny Betty ;)

RobertAnnable
RobertAnnable

@superlogi @RobertAnnable  In my view a war for Israel is not worth fighting. Israel pushed and pushed for the Iraq war and that sure worked out well. Israel, AIPAC and the Republican Zionist neo-cons (Kristol, Feith, Perle, Wolfowitz and Abrams fabricated many of the lies to justify the war. Although soldiers from many countries died supporting us in Iraq not a single Israeli shed a drop of blood. Google "aipac iraq war" for more information and then google "aipac iran war" to see the similarities. There are some things I might fight a war for but Israel isn't one of them.

HudsonValleyTim
HudsonValleyTim

@superlogi @RobertAnnable

Nobody is saying that "nothing is worth war". I think that it is more accurate to say that "not everything is worth war". In the case of war with Iran, there is only down-side. Nobody in the millitary thinks that it would do more than delay their nuclear program, while giving them ample reason to want a nuke for their own security. This is a no-win situation, but going to war with Iran is a much bigger loser than sanctions and containment.

RobertAnnable
RobertAnnable

@RobertAnderson @RobertAnnable  Most Americans don't view Iran as a threat to us than North Korea, Pakistan, China or Russia. We have had "Mutually Assured Destruction" for over 60 years and no one has used a nuclear weapon since we hit Japan. Do you really think Americans want another war on wingnut Netanyahu's "existential threat" You are the ignorant fool that probably only speaks for Israel, not Americans.

HudsonValleyTim
HudsonValleyTim

@RobertAnderson @RobertAnnable

Honestly, a nuclear Pakistan is a much-greater threat to the US than is Iran. Iran knows that if it dare try to nuke Israel, it will be reduced to glass in a matter of hours. Even a nuclear North Korea is a greater threat, as they are unpredictable as the wind. At least you know the devil in Iran.

eljin123
eljin123

were the hell do you get your news? The US and Israel are the only threat,- to Iran, Isreal resorts to violence at will. It persists in illegal settlement in occupied territory, some annexed, all in brazen defiance of international law and the U.N. Security Council. It has repeatedly carried out brutal attacks against Lebanon and the imprisoned people of Gaza, killing tens of thousands without credible pretext. Iran students and militants (terrorists)took over the american embassy in 1979 with 52 hostages for 444 days Iran has never attacted the US. They only want peace!

HudsonValleyTim
HudsonValleyTim

@superlogi @smehgol

Please tell me how I am made safer or free-er through Israel's incessant provocations of the Arab world, or its illegal occupation of the Palestinian lands. By the way, people like who? People like me who fondly remember a time when the US was at-peace?

superlogi
superlogi

@jitty015 @MarcChamot You mean subjugating the proletariat with extra-legal proclamations and executive orders and destroying the economic stability and integrity of the country, while systematically dismantling its traditional institutions was the "mandate" given to Barry?  If that's the case, there's at least 47% of us who will stop he and you from keeping that "mandate".  So, have at it.

RobertAnnable
RobertAnnable

@superlogi @RobertAnnable  From what I can see Israel is doing everything in its power  to set the stage for another holocaust. Why should I put my life on the line to protect you? As I said above, Israel had a major role in a pre-emptive war on Iraq that no Israeli shed any blood for. As the saying goes, "Never again! for another one. You made your bed so enjoy it while you can.

superlogi
superlogi

@RobertAnnable @superlogi What a relief that another holocaust wouldn't bother you.  I was beginning to think we were a civilized society.  Oh well, my faith in society is confirmed.

PS  But, when have you ever put your dumbass on the line to protect me?

RobertAnnable
RobertAnnable

@superlogi @HudsonValleyTim  You are an idiot! You want a war on a sovereign nation, that you attack pre-emptively due to alleged WMD's. Been there done that and it sure worked out well! All experts say that if Iran is attacked it will have a nuke in one to two years and they would be much more likely to use it if attacked again.

superlogi
superlogi

@HudsonValleyTim Actually, I thought Mill stated it quite well.  If you disagree, its too late to correct him.  In the case of Iran getting a nuke, there is no worse down side.  With regard to their security, they are threaten Israel, not the other way around.  Obviously, if sanctions were effective, we wouldn't have to worry about them getting a nuke.  They would have given up on that a long time ago.

RobertCassis
RobertCassis

@eljin123 Right.  And that Iran nuclear program is all about energy independence.  Delusional

RobertAnnable
RobertAnnable

@superlogi @HudsonValleyTim  Actually Bin-Laden made it abundantly clear in an interview that the major reason for 9/11 was the US's bias towards Israel in the alleged peace negotiations.

superlogi
superlogi

@HudsonValleyTim Whose provocations?  I suspect you're one of those morons who thinks we provoked the Islamists into bringing down the twin towers.  Good grief, think!

You know with a major share of Palestine already under their control and the amount of aide and money they've received from other countries including the US, they could have made it into an Arab paradise.  Yet, they refuse to even acknowledge Israel's right to exist.  Half their population was eliminated a generation ago while the world stood by and did nothing and you would repeat that mistake?

RobertAnnable
RobertAnnable

@superlogi @jitty015 @MarcChamot Listen to the threatening tough guy. You sound like all the right wing nuts after Obama's win calling in and saying "lets get our guns, and take back this country and kill some liberals". Come on try it and we will take all your guns away.