The surprising results from Israel's elections capped one of the more eventful campaign seasons in the country's history—a three-month period that featured a mini-war with Gaza, the surprise alliance between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, Lieberman’s indictment and departure from the foreign ministry, the return to politics of former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, the retirement of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the flirtation (and ultimate non-return) of former prime minister Ehud Olmert, and the surge of political newcomers Naftali Bennett on the hard right and Yair Lapid in the center.
Much will change in the coming days as vote totals are finalized, Knesset seats are allocated, and parties prepare for coalition negotiations. But here’s a preliminary look at Tuesday’s winners and losers.
Benjamin Netanyahu: Yes, his party suffered an extremely disappointing showing, with just 31 seats (16 fewer than political adviser Arthur Finkelstein famously predicted when he encouraged the alliance with Lieberman’s party). But exit polls show it still won at least twelve more seats than its closest competitor. And barring both a slight erosion for the right-wing bloc in the final results and a surprise merger between Israel’s center-left parties—both distinct possibilities—Netanyahu is still set to keep his job, and is on his way to becoming Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Still, building a governing coalition is going to be a lot harder than he imagined, and it seems unlikely that his new one will last for the same four years that the current one did.
Yair Lapid: The journalist-cum-politician was the night’s big surprise, with exit polls showing his party coming in second at 19 seats (he had been polling at 11-12). The self-styled centrist ran a quiet, smart campaign focused on reforming government and rescinding the many privileges (such as exemption for military service) given to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox. Lapid has long signaled that he planned to join the government, but he has said repeatedly that he would not be a moderate “fig leaf” for a right-wing government, meaning that Netanyahu will likely be forced to welcome one of the other center-left parties (Labor or Tzipi Livni’s “The Movement”) into the fold. Reports said Lapid was angling to be education minister. But with his surprise showing, might the former broadcast star demand the now-vacant foreign ministry? Netanyahu could do worse.
Naftali Bennett: Unlike Lapid, whose popular Friday-night news program made him a household name, Bennett was a virtual unknown just a few months ago. But the hardline 40-year-old former software tycoon managed to capitalize on right-wing disenchantment with Netanyahu and bring the struggling HaBayit HeYehud (“Jewish Home”) from just three seats in the outgoing Knesset to 12, according to the exit polls. Bennett and Netanyahu have an unhappy history. The former served as the latter's chief-of-staff during his time as opposition leader but was reportedly sent packing after repeated turf battles with Netanyahu’s wife Sara. Netanyahu would ideally love to exclude him from his coalition, but it’s not clear he will have a choice.
Meretz: The leftist party, long Israel’s most forward-leaning voice on the peace process, barely made it into the last Knesset with three seats but was a leading voice against much of the Netanyahu government's anti-Arab and other anti-democratic legislation in the Knesset over the past four years. According to exit polls, it more than doubled its strength with seven seats.
Likud: According to the exit polls, Israel’s ruling party will see its parliamentary strength drop from 27 to 20 (Yisrael Beiteinu, its election partner, will take 11 of the alliance’s 31 seats--a handsome showing given Lieberman’s legal troubles). The party appears to have been hurt by a pincer movement. From the right, Bennett managed to cannibalize a large chunk of voters who were displeased by Netanyahu’s quick ceasefire with Hamas in last month’s mini-war. And Netanyahu’s efforts to win them back by championing settlement expansion, along with the Likud’s TeaParty-like primary results and the alliance with Lieberman, apparently caused a hemorrhaging of voters to Lapid in the center. If Netanyahu is tasked with forming the government, as expected, his own party will control less than a third of the Knesset members in his government.
Shelly Yacimovich and the Labor Party: Shelly Yacimovich, an unabashed socialist with little interest in the issues of peace and war that animated previous Labor leaders, rode last summer’s social protests to the helm of the Labor Party. While polls throughout the campaign showed Labor poised to resume its place as Israel’s second-largest party, exit polls indicated that it would come in third with 17 seats—just four more than the party’s humiliating showing in the last elections. Yacimovich recently promised not to join a Netanyahu-led government, but that followed months of demurral on the subject.
Israel’s ultra-Orthodox: For decades, Israel’s religious parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, had won a variety of goodies (including exemption from military service, cheap housing, and generous child allowances and yeshiva stipends) by joining governments of both the left and right. These privileges have caused extreme resentment among the Israeli majority that is required to work, pay taxes, and serve in the army, but the power of Shas and United Torah Judaism have prevented any meaningful change (including over the summer, during Israel’s shortlived unity government). All that is about to change. If the next government leaves one mark on Israeli society, it is likely to be a new social contract with this rapidly growing sector of Israel’s population.
Tzipi Livni: Nearly four years after Livni led her former party Kadima to 28 seats (one more than Likud), the former foreign minister won one-fourth that total with her new party (“The Movement). It was a disappointing showing for Livni, who had managed to lure not only a good chunk of Kadima’s parliamentary faction, but two former Labor Party leaders (Amram Mitzna and Amir Peretz). Livni, a hawk-turned-dove who led the Israeli negotiating team in peace talks with the Palestinians during the last Israeli government, had sought to put the peace issue back on the agenda. Unfortunately for her, Israeli voters had other priorities.
The peace process: These were the first Israeli elections since the 1967 Six-Day War in which Israel’s conflict with its Arab neighbors (and with the Palestinians in particular) did not figure prominently in the public debate. While the relatively strong showing of the center-left parties is good news for potential concessions on the peace front, it’s worth noting that the only two parties that emphasized the issue—Meretz and Livni’s Movement—won a combined 14 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.