Jerusalem — Israel’s polls closed Tuesday at 10 p.m. after a day of torrential rain and hailstorms, but neither the elections nor the stormy weather are over.
A one-seat margin between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s Kadima Party and Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party (28-27 of 120 parliament seats) left both politicians claiming victory. However, most pundits are saying that Netanyahu has a better chance of forming a coalition government despite coming in second in the popular vote because of an overall right-wing tilt in the results.
Israeli President Shimon Peres, who will choose whom to ask to form the government, must take into account that right-wing parties garnered about 65 seats in the elections, Eli Kazhdan, a political analyst and former aide to Natan Sharansky, told me.
One possibility being bandied about is for Netanyahu to form a relatively narrow right-wing government with the key support coming from Avigdor Lieberman’s nationalist Israel Is Our Home Party. Lieberman’s party rose to third place overall in the voting, with 15 seats, eclipsing the Labor Party, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, which slipped to 13.
Labor’s collapse from its current tally of 19 Knesset members, itself a historic low, is the steepest fall from the party’s traditional heights and is indicative of the country’s overall right-wing tilt in the wake of the recent Gaza War. Labor-led coalitions ruled Israel from the country’s establishment in 1948 to 1977 but has been in decline ever since. The Meretz Party, which has an even more left-wing agenda on social and security issues than Labor’s, dipped from five seats to three.
"The message in the victory of the right-wing bloc was ‘enough’ — enough of territorial concessions that lead nowhere, enough of military restraint that only breeds contempt," Jerusalem Post analyst Herb Keinon wrote. "Some will say that Israel did little more Tuesday than vote its fears. Bingo. And, truth be told, there is much out there for Israelis to be scared of. Indeed, there is more right now that is frightening Israelis than giving them hope."
Lieberman has been reveling in his role as a potential kingmaker. He spoke to Livni and Netanyahu shortly after the polls closed and has not ruled out joining a coalition with either, despite his party’s sharp differences with both top parties, especially Kadima.
The Israel Is Our Home party’s agenda includes carving out parts of heavily Arab northern Israel and handing it over to the Palestinian Authority in exchange for full integration of numerous satellite Jewish communities in the West Bank into Israel proper as part of a final peace deal and creation of a Palestinian state.
Lieberman lives in a small community that is within a 20-minute drive of Jerusalem but is well outside the Green Line, the boundaries of the Jewish state hammered out in 1949 after Israel’s War of Independence and about the only "border" Israel has that is recognized by the United Nations and Arab countries.
Lieberman has also called for loyalty oaths for Israeli Arabs, who are exempt from Israeli Army service, unlike the vast majority of Jewish citizens of the country, who perform Army or alternate national service.
Lieberman’s positions on those hot-button issues clash both with Kadima’s, which calls only for modest land swaps in a final peace deal, and Likud’s, which does not officially accept creation of a full-featured Palestinian state. Yet horse trading for minor-party control of government ministries and budgets in exchange for coalition support, even without compromising on first principles, is a classic feature of Israeli electoral politics.
"The main argument today is not only over borders, but rather over the character of the State of Israel as a Jewish, Zionist, and democratic state," Lieberman said Tuesday night. "These three things must be intertwined. We have a way and principles, and we don’t plan to give them up."
Yet Kazhdan, an expert on Israel’s Russian populace, suggested Lieberman’s rise may not be as significant as some have said. Kazhdan said simple demographics give a Russian-centric candidate such as Lieberman, a native of Moldova, nearly 10 seats as a starting point. Ethnic bloc voting in Israel is a powerful force; the Sephardic-oriented Shas Party routinely receives from 10-11 seats, almost exclusively from Israelis with origins in Arab countries.
Kazhdan attributed the rest of Lieberman’s results to a campaign that stuck to a clear, anti-Arab message in the wake of the Gaza War and anti-Zionist posturing by Israeli Arab politicians during and after the conflict.
Further, Lieberman successfully played the suspiciously timed leak of a police corruption investigation against him as an attempt to sabotage an outsider seeking entry into Israel’s small political circles.
Those same elites may very well close ranks against Lieberman and cut him out of the government loop, even though his party finished third in the voting, one Israeli politico, whose own party failed to win a seat at the polls, told me.
He suggested that the most likely scenario would be for Netanyahu to form what will be called a unity government combining Likud, Kadima as a junior partner, and Shas, whose primary concern is financial support for large, ultra-Orthodox families. That would cut out Lieberman, especially as Shas’ eccentric rabbinical director, Ovadia Yosef, likened him to Satan. Lieberman’s domestic agenda includes civil marriages, which are banned in Israel, and his anti-religious supporters do not uphold Orthodox Jewish traditions, such as shunning pork products.
For her part, Livni has said she should be prime minister and publicly invited Netanyahu to join her as the junior partner. Yet few expect Livni to be able to form a government.
Yuli Edelstein, a Likud Knesset member, said it was Livni’s inability to form a new government coalition last fall, in conditions more favorable to a center-left government, which brought about the elections.
"What we know for a fact is that the right-wing camp is a majority in the next Knesset," Edelstein said. "Likud is nearly three times as big as it was in the previous Knesset. So, with all these facts combined, Netanyahu still has a better chance to become the next Israeli prime minister."
A key Kadima official, Nachman Shai, hinted at a possible compromise in an election night interview.
"We’ve never faced a situation like this, where the big party — the winning party — is in the smaller bloc," Shai told Israel’s English-language TV news. "I don’t imagine any coalition without Kadima, and I don’t imagine a situation where Tzipi Livni will not serve for at least half of a term, like we had once in the past, as prime minister."
Shai was referring to a 1980s power-sharing arrangement in which Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir and Peres, then in the Labor Party, alternated as prime minister after a similarly inconclusive election.
Shai may have been dangling a carrot to Netanyahu, but, publicly at least, that stage of negotiations is far away. For the moment, both leading parties say they should head the government, and the storm over that is far from blowing over.
Finally, some analysts are suggesting that the expected lengthy period before a governing coalition is seated, let alone the vote’s right-wing tilt, will harm President Obama’s stated goal of working for Middle East peace at an early stage of his presidency.
But Kazhdan, who has ties to Netanyahu, said that interpretation is inaccurate.
"Those who say that Obama would prefer Livni over Bibi are mistaken," he said. "The right-wing makeup of the Knesset will make the peace process not easy for the US administration, but Bibi will want to curry favor in Obama’s eyes as much as Livni would."
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