Political obituaries premature as Netanyahu big winner

Media blitz on hazards of left-wing rule keeps alive PM’s ambition of holding on to power

If there was a big winner in Tuesday's Israeli election it was Binyamin Netanyahu.

“Against all odds, this is a huge victory for the Likud, a huge victory for the national camp headed by the Likud, a huge victory for the nation of Israel,” Netanyahu said in response to the exit polls.

Only a few days ago, some commentators were writing his political obituary as he trailed Yitzhak Herzog’s centre-left Zionist Union by four seats in the polls. But a media blitz over the last days of the campaign, pressing home incessantly the message that only a Likud vote could prevent a left-wing government, did the trick.

Two TV exit polls projected a dead heat with 27 votes each for the Likud and the Zionist Union in the 120-seat Knesset: a third put Netanyahu one seat ahead, 28-27.


But there was also bad news for Netanyahu: his success came at the expense of potential right-wing coalition partners.

The far-right Jewish Home, led by Naftali Bennett, the party most closely associated with West Bank Jewish settlers, haemorrhaged votes over the last few days in the direction of Likud, plummeting to only eight or nine seats.

Another far-right religious party, Yahad, projected in the polls to win four seats, failed to pass the electoral threshold of 3.25 per cent according to the exit polls. As the real votes are counted, what will be critical in determining who will be the next prime minister is whether Yahad will pass that threshold, that is, giving an extra four seats to the right-wing bloc.

Both Netanyahu and Herzog will find it extremely difficult to cobble together a stable coalition although Netanyahu is best-placed of the two. He could build a narrow coalition of about 64 Knesset members based on all the right-wing and religious parties and the centrist Kulanu.

The key coalition playmaker will be Moshe Kahlon, the former Likud minister who fell out with Netanyahu, and now heads the centrist Kulanu, with nine or 10 seats, according to the exit polls.

Kahlon has made it clear that he wants to be finance minister and he is now in a position to get this key portfolio, and more, from the next prime minister. Last night Kahlon spoke to both Netanyahu and Herzog but refused to say who he will recommend to the president to form the next government, saying he wants to wait until the real votes are counted.

President Reuven Rivlin is likely to press for a national unity government, maybe with a rotation of the premiership, but such a plan would be opposed by many within both Likud and Zionist Union.

The Zionist Union said it was premature to declare Netanyahu the next prime minister.

“The Likud continues to err. The right-wing bloc has gotten smaller. Everything is open. We have formed a negotiating team with the goal of putting together a coalition led by Herzog.”