UPDATED at 7:30am eastern, Wednesday — One thing is now clear after Tuesday’s national elections in Israel: the center-right coalition made dramatic gains and can have an operating majority with 64 seats in the 120 seat Knesset (parliament), if they choose to work together in unity. The center-left parties, by contrast, were trounced and now have only 56 seats, eight of which are held by Arab parties who so deeply resent the left-wing’s participation in the recent Gaza war against Hamas that they cannot be counted upon to help the left form a stable governing coalition.
The big surprise Tuesday night was that the leading center-right party — Likud, headed by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — did not win a plurality. The left-wing Kadima party, headed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, did. So things get really interesting from here.
At this hour, with 99.8% of the vote counted, Kadima appears to have squeaked out a narrow lead over Likud, 28 seats to 27 seats. If these results hold, they will mean Kadima will have one less seat in the next Knesset than the 29 they currently have. They also mean Likud will have 15 seats more than the 12 they currently have. But two weeks ago, Likud was widely expected to win a total of between 31 to 34 seats, and a decisive victory over Kadima.
So who will emerge as the next Prime Minister of Israel? This remains to be determined, but based on everything I’m seeing at the moment it would appear that Netanyahu has the edge, given the size and strength of the overall center-right coalition.
Here’s what to watch for:
- Final election results won’t be known until February 18th, when all of the absentee and military ballots have been counted.
- After the final results are in, Israel’s President — Shimon Peres — is legally mandated to invite the party leader with the best chance at forming a stable government to try to put together his or her coalition within a short time frame.
- If the current results hold, Livni and her team will argue to Peres that they should be given this opportunity because they have won a plurality. However, Peres gave Livni the opportunity to form a government last fall, and she couldn’t do it. Even when she asked for and was granted more time by Peres to form a government, she still couldn’t accomplish it, even though the Left had far more seats then than they do now. Livni’s failure to succeed is what prompted these new elections in the first place.
- What’s more, Livni’s ability to form a center-left coalition has just been dramatically complicated by the fact that Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s badly decimated Labor Party has just announced that it will sit in the opposition in the next government, not help one side or the other form a coalition or a “unity government.”
- Keep your eye on Avigdor Lieberman and his right-wing Israel Beiteinu party. They just won an impressive 15 seats. Though they were expecting to win 20, Lieberman suddenly has quite a bit of leverage, and I expect him to milk his perceived “kingmaker” status for all it is worth. Lieberman once served as chief of staff (director general) when Netanyahu was Prime Minister in the late 1990s, and he is inclined to help Netanyahu create a strong center-right coalition government. But Lieberman is also an opportunist. He once broke away from Likud and created his own party, criticizing Likud for not being tough enough against Palestinian and Iranian extremists. Then he joined the government of Ehud Olmert, and was rewarded by Olmert with the title of Deputy Prime Minister for Strategic Affairs. He then quit when Olmert’s stock was plunging like a rock. Now he is playing footsie with Livni, suggesting publicly that he’s not opposed to helping her form a government. Personally, I don’t buy it. Anything’s possible, of course, and we could see a lot of twists and turns in the road ahead. But I think Lieberman is trying to maximize his leverage to get as much power from Netanyahu in the next government as possible. In the end, I suspect Netanyahu and Lieberman will cut a deal together, if for no other reason than they both believe so strongly in toppling Hamas and defending Israel from the increasingly imminent threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.
HEADLINES TO TRACK:
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- With 99 percent of votes counted, Kadima leads Likud 28 to 27 seats
- Success of rightist bloc may propel Netanyahu into PM’s chair
- Livni calls on Bibi to join her gov’t
- Too early? Kadima throws ‘victory party’
- Netanyahu declares: I will be next PM
- Lieberman: I prefer right-wing coalition
- Two Prime Ministers: Ambiguous election result may force Livni, Bibi to agree to rotation
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