The long awaited and much-anticipated Israeli elections took place on Tuesday with an outcome that was somewhat surprising for many. In the lead-up to the elections, practically every poll released had the Zionist Union (the joint ticket of Labour chairperson Isaac Herzog and Hatnuah chairperson Tzipi Livni) ahead of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud by at least a few seats.
On the Friday before the vote, which was the final day in which poll data can legally be released to the public, the Zionist Union was tipped to win at least 26 seats to Netanyahu’s 22.
Under Israel’s political system, the party with the most votes is usually invited by the President to form a coalition until the magic 61-seat majority is achieved. According to election legislation, had the race been close, it would have been up to the discretion of the President as to who would be selected to try to form a government, based on who he believed had the best chance to succeed in doing so. In February 2009, Tzipi Livni’s Kadima obtained one more seat than PM Netanyahu’s Likud, but the President at the time, Shimon Peres, chose Netanyahu to form a coalition.
The day before the elections, two major parties dropped bombshells.
The first came from the Zionist Union. When Herzog and Livni joined forces they agreed that should they win the elections, they would have a two-year rotation for the Prime Minister’s position with Herzog going first. Despite this, Livni took a backseat for most of the campaign and was in fact barely visible for the most part, despite being second on the party list. As such, it came as less of a surprise that on the eve of the elections she announced that she would be relinquishing her right to rotate the top job, and that Herzog would remain leader for the duration of the term. By doing this she hoped to strengthen both Herzog’s position as leader and the momentum of the party against Likud.
The bombshell dropped by Likud was much bigger. PM Netanyahu, who had previously declared his support for a two-state solution with the Palestinians, declared that there would be no Palestinian State if he was to be re-elected.
He announced, “Whoever moves to establish a Palestinian state or intends to withdraw from territory is simply yielding territory for radical Islamic terrorist attacks against Israel”. When he was pressed as to whether that meant a Palestinian state would not be established he replied, “Indeed”.
Many commentators saw this as a crafty political move not to get voters from the Zionist Union, but rather from his own political allies, such as Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi.
PM Netanyahu also created controversy while the polls were still open when he posted a video on Facebook saying in Hebrew, “the right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are going en masse to the polls. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them on buses”. This was criticised by leaders of the Arab parties as well as members of the Zionist Union with MK Sheli Yachimovich saying post-election that “no Western leader would dare utter such a racist comment… Imagine a Prime Minister/President in any democracy who would warn that his rule is in jeopardy because, eg. ‘Black voters are coming in droves to the polling stations’.”
And so the polls opened, and 72.3% of Israelis showed up to vote which was the highest voter turnout since 1999. The exit polls were released as soon as the polls closed at 10pm, the first of which put Likud and the Zionist Union neck and neck on 27 seats apiece – already a significant change from the pre-election polls.
But as the vote count began, it became clear that the pre-election polls had gotten it all very wrong (this has also happened in past Israeli elections) and with 99% of the votes counted, Likud had 30 seats to the Zionist Union’s 24. It took another day for all of the absentee votes to be counted which includes votes from soldiers, prisoners, overseas diplomats, hospitalised people and others. Before those votes had been counted, Meretz appeared to be in danger of falling below the 4-seat threshold which would exclude them from being a part of the next Knesset, and leader Zehava Gal-on announced she would resign if they fell below the threshold. With all of the votes counted, Meretz ended up with five seats, with the final seat coming at the expense of the Joint List, which dropped to 13 seats.
The final seat tally is:
Likud – 30
Zionist Union – 24
Joint List – 13
Yesh Atid – 11
Kulanu – 10
Bayit Yehudi – 8
Shas – 7
United Torah Judaism – 6
Yisrael Beytenu – 6
Meretz – 5
While the big winner is seen to be Prime Minister Netanyahu, another big winner was Moshe Kachlon, formerly a member of Likud who resigned for a while and returned with a new party, Kulanu, which ran on a social justice platform.
Without Kachlon, Likud and their natural partners only have 58 seats, so Kachlon could play a leading role in the negotiations to form a coalition. Kachlon is well-liked by the Israeli public due to reforms he ushered in regarding the cost of cellular phones, and he had been keeping his cards close to his chest in regards to which way he would go. It is believed that he will get the role of Finance Minister in the next government, should he join.
Herzog, who phoned PM Netanyahu to congratulate him and wish him luck, could also form a coalition with Kachlon, but without taking Yisrael Beytenu and the religious parties, he would have to rely on the 13 seats of the Joint List (the combined list of the Arab parties), who have never joined a coalition before. While that option does still seem unlikely, on the eve on the election head of the list, Ayman Odeh had not ruled anything out and said, “after the elections, we will listen to what Herzog has to say and then we will decide”.
In any event, it still appears unlikely that Herzog will be asked to try to form a coalition given that Netanyahu will most likely be able to reach at least 61 mandates.
President Rivlin was said to want the two major party leaders to try and form a unity government together to provide more stability, but would not force it. Going it alone means that the coalition could collapse with the departure of even one of the smaller parties.
There is an interesting map that shows how the voting went based on geographical location. There are not too many surprises there, but one interesting fact is the way in which the towns and communities on the border with Gaza voted, with the Zionist Union being the clear winner for much of that area. This most certainly says something about those that bore the brunt of last year’s war with Gaza, as well as 14 years of consistent rocket attacks by Hamas terrorists in Gaza.
Much has been said about Israel-US relations, which appear to have been a shaky ground for some time now due to a difference of opinion about Iran, among other elements. Following PM Netanyahu’s declaration on the eve of the elections about the future of a Palestinian state, he came out clarifying his statements in an interview with US station MSNBC where he said, “I haven’t changed my policy. I never retracted by speech in Bar-Ilan University six years ago calling for a demilitarised Palestinian state that recognises the Jewish State.. What has changed is the reality”. This reality includes the PA not recognising Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and Hamas’ control of the Gaza Strip. He continued, “I don’t want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution. But for that, circumstances have to change.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, “he [Netanyahu] walked back from commitments that Israel had previously made to a two-state solution… It is cause for the United States to evaluate what our path is forward”. This led many to believe that there may be a shift in US attitudes to Israel at the United Nations, among other things.
That being said, yesterday President Obama called PM Netanyahu to congratulate him on the win and during that call he “reaffirmed the United States’ long-standing commitment to a two-state solution that results in a secure Israel alongside a sovereign and viable Palestine.” He also “emphasized the importance the United States places on our close military intelligence, and security cooperation with Israel, which reflects the deep and abiding partnership between both countries”.
PM Netanyahu may get a lot of criticism in the international media but the fact is that Israel has a robust democracy and at the end of the day, the international media does not choose who leads a country, the citizens of the country do. In the case, the people have spoken. In an article from Commentary Magazine, Evelyn Gordon writes, “anyone that actually cares about the peace process ought to be far more worried by the Palestinian election that didn’t happen than by the outcome of the Israeli one that did”. She continues, “thus if Western leaders are serious about wanting Israeli-Palestinian peace, working to rectify the lack of Palestinian democracy would be far more productive than wringing their hands over the choices made by Israel’s democracy”.
The next few weeks will consist of negotiations, promises and more political wrangling. Moshe Kachlon wants the role of Finance Minister, while Avigdor Lieberman has indicated that he wants to be the Minister of Defence. However, with only six seats to bring to the party, he has significantly less pulling power than in past years.
Join us on Sunday in Melbourne and on Tuesday in Sydney for a post-election function – “After Israel’s Elections: WHAT NOW?” Australian Jews News; Israel correspondent will be speaking in both cities, joined by foreign editor of The Australian Greg Sheridan and AIJAC policy analyst Or Avi Guy in Melbourne, and former ZFA President Dr Ron Weiser AM and UIA CEO Yair Miller in Sydney.
Media & Advocacy Director
Zionist Federation of Australia
03 9272 5618