Tel Aviv — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu almost certainly will remain in his post but he suffered a painful blow at the ballot box on Tuesday, after exit polls suggested that his Likud Party lost about a quarter of its seats in parliament, leaving him the weakened leader of a potentially fractious government.
Thanks to the surprise surge of the centrist Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party of former TV anchor Yair Lapid, the bloc of right-wing and religious parties — Netanyahu’s so-called “natural” coalition partners — are expected to only hold a razor-thin majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
That means that Netanyahu — whose Likud-Beiteinu bloc garnered 31 seats, according to exit polls, down from 42 in the current government — will likely have to form a center-right coalition with Lapid as his major partner. Because Lapid made requiring the ultra-Orthodox to integrate into the army and workforce a central plank of his campaign, his membership in the coalition will likely crowd out haredi parties like Shas and United Torah Judaism.
“Mr. Netanyahu is in a weaker position now. His party is a minority in the coalition, and that’s a difficult situation to be in,” said Yehuda Ben Meir, a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “I don’t envy him.
“The story of the election is the move to the center,” Ben Meir continued, “and the possibility of making a coalition with what he calls his natural partners does not exist. He will work for a wider coalition.”
What is unclear, Ben Meir said, is how a coalition based on a Netanyahu-Lapid partnership would affect Israel’s foreign policy. Lapid’s Yesh Atid party focused mainly on socioeconomic issues that catered to the middle class, and it largely ignored issues like Israel-Palestinian peace making and Iran.
That said, Lapid is considered to be dovish on foreign policy issues, and his party includes Yaacov Perry, a former Shin Bet director who has been a leading proponent of advancing the peace process with the Palestinians.
Likud Party Knesset members insisted the initial results were not as bad as they seemed for the ruling party. They pointed out that Likud would remain the largest party in the government, and that the right wing had held onto a majority in the parliament.
“The important thing is that Prime Minister Netanyahu will be the next prime minister for the next term. The number of seats is not an important issue,” said Culture Minister Limor Livnat.
“Many people in Israel felt like without having someone challenging Netanyahu, they could afford themselves to vote another party. That’s why we lost seats. … It’s something that we didn’t want, and it will be more difficult to form a coalition, but Netanyahu is the only one that can form a coalition.”
Thanking supporters for electing him to a third term as prime minister, Netanyahu said the top priority of the new government would be preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and adopting a “responsible” economic policy, a reference to painful budget cuts that will be the first task of the new government to ease a unexpectedly high budget deficit.
He also mentioned a more equitable “sharing of the burden,” a reference to reforms dealing with the ultra-Orthodox, and easing price hikes for the middle class, another gesture to the priorities of Lapid and his party.
Ofer Shelah, a former journalist who is close to Lapid, told Channel 2 that the party would not join a party made up mainly of the far-right-wing and the ultra-Orthodox parties. He also said that Yesh Atid will demand passage of legislation eliminating draft exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox.
Soon after the election results were announced, the prime minister spoke by telephone with Lapid, and asked him to join forces and do “great things” for the country.
“This shows that Lapid is the cornerstone of Netanyahu’s coalition, if Netanyahu should indeed form it,” said Nadiv Perry, a political commentator for Channel 10. “Netanyahu has no coalition without Lapid.”
The unclear foreign policy direction of the next government was highlighted by fact that the third largest party in the government is likely to be the pro-settler Jewish Home party, whose leader, Naftali Bennett, flatly opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and supports annexing 60 percent of the West Bank.
Bringing both Yesh Atid and Jewish Home into the same government would enable Netanyahu to place himself at the center of the new government’s foreign policy agenda.
Forming a narrow coalition with right-wing and religious parties would leave him as a minority voice that supports the two-state solution, which would create friction amid expected pressure from the U.S. and Europe to restart diplomacy with the Palestinian Authority.
Despite the expectation that Netanyahu would form the next government, Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich said after the results that she would do everything in her power to put together a center-left coalition in which Netanyahu would not be the prime minister.
She pledged to push for a government that would focus on social issues and restart the peace process, saying that a new administration led by Netanyahu would only lead to a continuation of the policies of the previous government.
But Avishay Braverman, a Labor Knesset member, acknowledged the likelihood that Labor may itself be in the opposition with Netanyahu as prime minister.
“Netanyahu has a major problem to lead now because the direction he was pressing in foreign policy and on the economy were rejected by the public,” he said.
“In the future, I see a problematic situation that may lead to a new election that might be more decisive.”
Experts believe that the center-left is too fractured and lacking in a leader with enough gravitas to form a next government. Braverman said the results are a “wake-up call” for the parties of the center-left to work more cohesively together.
Steven Spiegel, a national scholar with the Israel Policy Forum, said the close split between the right wing and center/center-left parties “will make it very difficult to form a government.”
“The younger Russians and younger Arabs are moving in the direction of being more independent of their parents – the classic immigrant pattern,” he said. “It’s the second generation turning against what their parents believed. So the young Russians are moving from the right to a more centrist position and the young Arabs are gravitating to more centrist parties and away from the Arab parties that are not really viable in Israel.”
He added that it was a “big mistake” that Labor and Lapid did not have “enough security” people on their slate of candidates because that would have helped their numbers.
Spiegel added that as the election campaign went on, the issue turned from security to social issues and that the shift was reflected in Tuesday’s election returns.