Although he is likely to become Israel’s next prime minister, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu in essence lost this week’s elections. A month ago, Likud enjoyed a double-digit lead over Kadima and it seemed as if the only problem Netanyahu would face would be who to not include in his coalition. Now, if Netanyahu is to return to the Prime Minister’s Office, he has no choice but to form, at least initially, the most right-wing government in Israel’s history — regardless of his own preference for a more centrist coalition based on a national unity government.
The election results again proved the necessity of changing Israel’s system of proportional representation: despite the fact that centre-left party Kadima won the largest number of votes, the Israeli right as a whole has a clear majority in the next Knesset, winning 65 out of the 120 seats.
Tzipi Livni is insisting that she should be asked by President Shimon Peres to form the next government. But given the right’s overall success, it is hard to see how Peres can offer Livni the first crack of the coalition-building whip.
Ironically, the biggest loser is Ehud Barak’s Labour Party, which slipped to its worst-ever showing of 13 seats and, humiliatingly, is trailing after Yisrael Beiteinu. Let’s not forget: if it wasn’t for Barak’s insistence on calling for early elections following Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s refusal to step down due to the criminal investigations against him, there would have been no general election.
On Tuesday night, Barak insisted he would remain party leader and that sitting in opposition did not trouble him. But it will be interesting to see what would happen were Netanyahu to offer Barak the defence portfolio as a personal appointment, just as Menachem Begin plucked Moshe Dayan out of Labour in 1977 and made him foreign minister. In the campaign, Netanyahu was careful to stress that Barak was a worthy candidate for the defence ministry and Barak could just provide the moderate gloss that Netanyahu will need to soften the hardline make-up of his coalition.
For once, the strictly Orthodox Shas party does not hold the balance of power in the coming coalition negotiations; the role of kingmaker has moved over to Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman, who has stated that he wants a right-wing government.
While Lieberman can take pride in the fact that the party he created has, in a decade, become Israel’s third-largest parliamentary faction, he will no doubt reflect on the fact that the polls had predicted an even greater number of seats. His strident anti-Arab campaign boomeranged to the extent that it encouraged Israeli Arabs to vote in greater numbers than had been predicted, ensuring three seats for Balad, the most extreme of the Israeli Arab parties running for the Knesset and one that Lieberman had unsuccessfully tried to ban.