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NETANYAHU'S LAST MINUTE DECLARATION that the Palestinians have no partner clinched an election that seemed to be slipping away from him, snatching an impressive victory from defeat's drooling jaws. In truth, anyone who has been paying attention couldn't be surprised by Bibi's pronouncement that there would never be a Palestinian state, which is a measure of just how many people haven't been paying attention. The Israeli Prime Minister has once again proved his cunning and political acumen are unrivaled.
The nationwide totals suggest Netanyahu succeeded in peeling voters away from Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu (whose base is with secular settlers and recent immigrants, mostly from the former Soviet bloc) and Naftali Bennet's Habayit Hayehudi (the current incarnation of the National Religious Party, home to militant settlers). Even with breakaway faction Kulanu draining some of his support, Netanyahu slightly improved Likud's absolute share of the vote, and in relative terms held the line established in 2013. This is actually the best result the party has achieved since 2003. It appears Netanyahu has essentially closed the rift caused by Ariel Sharon's creation of Kadima, bringing its rightwing supporters back into the fold.
So far the returns suggest the the traditional supporters of Shas split their vote, with many throwing their support behind rogue party leader Eli Yishai's new outfit Yahad. As for their Ashkenazi Haredi cousins, they backed United Torah Judaism as usual. UTJ has continued to improve its position in absolute terms, though its share of the vote has remained more or less consistent. If you count Shas and Yahad as a single electoral bloc (strictly to estimate the size of their support), it seems to have held steady, though Yahad failed to clear the threshold and the split — for our purposes between the party's left and right wings — may have implications as attention turns to forming a governing coalition.
NETANYAHU'S TRIUMPH, AND THE DASHED HOPES nurtured by misleading exit polls, already seem to be obscuring one of the real stories of this election: Isaac Herzog's resurrection of the Labor Party. The newly-minted party leader led Labor to its best showing since 1996. For the first time in almost a decade, Labor is the second-largest party in the country. Herzog didn't do this on his own, of course; Labor entered into an alliance with Tzipi Livni's Ha'Tnua, and rechristened itself the Zionist Union. Even crediting Livni with bringing to the table the 189,167 votes her party won in 2013, Herzog still managed to rally another 160,000 voters to their banner (many of them presumably lured from Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid, which took a pretty steep plunge in the polls).
Herzog pulled this feat off by tacking to the right, as amply documented for Jewish Currents by Ron Skolnik. While Herzog continued to observe the pieties of the peace process, professing he would make a "100 percent effort" to achieve a deal, he also went after Netanyahu for releasing Palestinian prisoners “with blood on their hands,” for failing to somehow leverage last summer’s war in Gaza into a diplomatic accomplishment (that is: the war itself was not the problem), and for supposedly botching the Great Game so badly that "over the last year Iran has turned into a nuclear threshold state.”
In case anyone entertains the idea that this might leave room to challenge Labor from the left, Meretz has continued to struggle to remain afloat. While the party managed not to sink below the threshold, it suffered a slight decline in strength from 2013 (though it's still above its 2009 nadir).
The 2013 election, however, saw Meretz's support bolstered by a surplus vote agreement with Livni's Ha'Tnua; this time around Meretz struck a similar agreement with Labor, its traditional partner (under the leadership of Shelly Yachimovich during the previous election Labor stiffed the party), that has yet to be factored in to the result. Regardless of whether the surplus vote agreement enables it to pick up a sixth seat, it's clear that the heights of the '90s remain far off. Writing in Haaretz, Anshel Pfeffer (who voted Herzog) offered a damning assessment:
The continued inability of a party that in 1992 won 12 seats and contributed massively to Yitzhak Rabin's victory to come anywhere near that achievement has gone on for too long. Meretz has failed miserably at breaking into new constituencies and has to shoulder its portion of the blame for the rightward shift of the Israeli public.
Its values may be beyond reproach, but it may be beyond redemption.
ATTENTION NOW TURNS to the Talmudic deliberation of coalition politics and parliamentary math. Israeli president Reuven Rivlin will consult with the leading parties to determine which should be given the opportunity to form a government. Whichever party is asked must then secure the simple majority of the Knesset (61 seats) required to do so. Visions of a unity government faded as the exit polls proved inaccurate; a minority government also seems a distant possibility.
Labor could find allies in what to the casual observer would seem unlikely places: Avigdor Lieberman, who in principle supports a two-state solution (to where else is he going to "transfer" Israeli-Arabs), would actually be a possible coalition partner, as would Shas (which, with the departure of Eli Yishai, has shown signs of shifting back toward the left). But as far as Lieberman is concerned, it's difficult to imagine dealing with the man who recently proclaimed that those who are "against us" should be beheaded and who in a live TV debate told Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint Arab List, "You are not wanted here", and still receiving the support required from that List to form a government. Striking a deal with Shas and/or UTJ would also probably deprive Labor of the support it would need from the resolutely secular Yair Lapid (and vice versa). Even if Herzog wins the initial nod to form a government, it's exceedingly difficult to see how he could assemble the coalition to sustain it.
It seems highly likely Netanyahu will lead the next government. While he may have slightly fewer seats under his command than he did after the previous election, those he has will probably be more susceptible to his control. Lieberman, Lapid, and Bennet all proved to be difficult partners, and they've all been reduced in strength. (For that matter, it's almost impossible to imagine that Lapid would sign up for Bibi's new coalition, as unloading him was what triggered these elections in the first place — and early signs suggest Yesh Atid will indeed join the opposition.)
Nasty, brutish, and short, this election was painful to watch. As Israelis went to the polls, Netanyahu whipped off a video warning that "Arab voters are coming out in droves." it was the lowlight of an often racist and xenophobic campaign season, demonstrating his mastery of the politics of fear and loathing. After being dragged through the gutter, Israelis get to their feet, try to get oriented, discover what no one saw coming: the election's intense polarization has also brought about the consolidation of the country's two historic contenders for power. It's just no longer clear if that matters.
Nicholas Jahr, a member of our editorial board, is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. He last wrote for Jewish Currents in 2013 on “The Secret History of Palestinian Non-Violence,” and is a regular contributor to the website.