Bibi’s Big Surprise

NEW YORK – Binyamin Netanyahu proved the pollsters wrong – not once, but twice. In the weeks and days leading up to Israel’s election, his defeat was widely predicted. Then, in the hours after the vote, exit polls suggested parity between his Likud party and the center-left Zionist Union, led by his chief rival, Yitzhak Herzog, with a slight edge for the right-wing bloc. Several hours after the polls closed, it turned out that Likud was the big winner, gaining 30 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, compared to 24 for the Zionist Union.

As a result, Netanyahu will have no real difficulty in forming a right-wing government coalition. The kingmakers in the event of parity – the smaller parties and electoral lists in the center of the political spectrum – have lost most of their bargaining power.

It was a crucial election in two respects: The outcome reflected the Israeli electorate’s sharp turn to the right and has reinforced Netanyahu’s political dominance. As recently as 2006, Ehud Olmert had won an election in Israel on a dovish platform, pledging to extend Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza to the West Bank. In the 2009 election, the Kadima party, under his successor, Tzipi Livni, received one seat more than Likud, but was unable to form a government coalition. Netanyahu did, and went on to win the 2013 election. Now he has won yet again.

The turn to the right derives from both structural and circumstantial factors. Israel’s right-wing parties draw support from the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities, West Bank settlers, and a large part of the Sephardic and Russian communities. When the center left won elections in the past two decades, it did so under a powerful security-oriented leader: Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Sharon (after his conversion), and Sharon’s successor, Olmert. Though Herzog and Livni – who formed the Zionist Union by merging Herzog’s Labor party and Livni’s Hatnuah party – possess several attractive qualities, they do not match the prototype preferred by today’s average voter.