Right Weakened in Israel, but Still Standing

Netanyahu emerges unscathed -- but faces challenges in creating new coalition.

According to the first exit-poll results for Israel’s elections Tuesday night, Binyamin Netanyahu will almost certainly continue as prime minister. But it may well be with a considerably more patchwork, wobbly coalition than almost all surveys leading up to the elections had projected.

Netanyahu’s own Likud Beiteinu Party—a merger of his original party, Likud, and the Yisrael Beiteinu faction—had plummeted to 31 seats (out of a Knesset of 120). Plummeted, because in the outgoing Knesset the two parties had a total of 42 seats between them. The merger had been celebrated by some as a brilliant move, denounced by others as a blunder of epic proportions. The denouncers won that round.

Also on the right side of the political spectrum, the Habayit Hayehudi faction of the much-celebrated Naftali Bennett—the young, “hip,” nationalist-religious, hi-tech wunderkind whom the world media decided to turn into a Big Story—was showing a disappointing 12 mandates from the Israeli public. But with three other right-wing parties (two of them ultra-religious) totaling 19 seats between them, it still meant the right had a majority of 62.

Which (to repeat, out of a Knesset of 120) is not as slim as it sounds—since the 58 on the other side of the spectrum include 8 seats or so for Arab parties that take an oppositional stance toward Israel as a country and have never been part of any governing coalition.

In other words, among the predominantly Jewish voters, the right wing had won by perhaps 62-50—a considerable margin, yet much less than expected.

And the “shocker,” the huge success story that enabled the left’s relatively strong showing, was the Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) faction of Yair Lapid, a media personality—considered charismatic—without an iota of governmental or managerial experience in any field. Lapid, however, projected a message as champion of the “middle class” that clearly caught on with part of the public, coming in second with 18-19 seats.

A couple of things should be noted about Lapid, whose designation as “left” is arguably more schematic than substantive. First, he sometimes assumes relatively hawkish tonalities and is considered the most hawkish of the party leaders on his side of the map. Second, his main theme—“burden-sharing,” that is, the need to put an end to the refusal of large numbers of Israel’s ultra-religious Jews to serve in the military and engage in productive work—is a consensus message that crosses the right-left divide and is endorsed by almost all of the army-serving public.

Lapid’s party, in other words, is a clear candidate to join Netanyahu’s coalition. Netanyahu, for his part, would much prefer it that way—rather than the narrow right/religious coalition that would be unable to make progress on the burden-sharing issue.

The conundrum for Netanyahu, of course, is—in what commentators are already calling the “hell negotiations” that face him—somehow finding a balance between Lapid’s demands of the ultra-religious on the one side, and the ultra-religious themselves on the other.

Among the less likely, but not impossible, scenarios:

● A coalition only between Netanyahu’s, Bennett’s, and Lapid’s parties, without the ultra-religious ones. This combination of the secular right, the nationalist-religious right, and the moderate left would be narrow but possibly effective.

● A much wider, “unity” coalition including not only Lapid’s but also other left-of-center parties along with at least some of the right-wing ones—in theory desirable at a time when Israel faces multiple economic, diplomatic, and security challenges, above all Iran’s impending nuclearization. The success of such a large coalition would probably depend mainly on the left’s ability—always questionable—to overcome its “peacemaking,” Mahmoud Abbas-centered delusions.

● A successful luring by the left-of-center of one of the ultra-religious parties (it would be the Shas Party, known for its cynicism) to its side, creating a narrow majority and toppling Netanyahu. Considering that the leaders of the left-wing parties are mostly inexperienced, prone to delusion, and eager to comply with U.S. and European diplomatic pressures stemming from no-less-delusive and often cynical motives, this is a dark scenario, fortunately only at the borders of the possible.

To sum up, the Israeli public has not done justice to Binyamin Netanyahu, whose overall record these past four years on the security, diplomatic, and economic fronts is solid and commendable; while falling for the somewhat facile appeal of the untested Yair Lapid. At a time when the defense and foreign policy lineup in Barack Obama’s Washington looks increasingly inimical to Israel, this is lamentable but probably not irremediable.

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