Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed on track to win reelection on Tuesday as exit polls predicted that his conservative party would win a plurality of the seats in the new Knesset.
Netanyahu’s Likud, which merged its list with the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu in an attempt to consolidate the right-wing vote, got 31 out of 120 seats, eleven fewer than the two parties occupied separately before the election.
Likud‘s loss was Naftali Bennett’s gain whose nationalist Jewish Home party was projected to enter parliament with twelve seats, making it difficult for Netanyahu to form a coalition without him. Many conservative voters switched to Jewish Home because it more staunchly advocates settlement construction in West Bank territory that is claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.
On the left, another upstart performed surprisingly well. Yair Lapid’s centrists came in second to Likud with eighteen to nineteen seats, pushing the once dominant Labor Party led by Shelly Yachimovich into third place with seventeen. Lapid attracted many middle-class voters by promising to overhaul the nation’s education system, reduce a housing shortage and abolish a military draft exemption for Jewish seminary students.
The projections compiled by three Israeli broadcasters showed the parties on the right with a slim majority of 61 against 59 for centrist and left-wing parties. The liberal Kadima, which emerged with a plurality from the last election, did not win any seats.
If the exit poll numbers bear out — official results are expected Wednesday morning — Netanyahu is able to continue his right-wing coalition which could be less eager to advance the peace process with the Palestinians and compromise on settlement building than the premier has been so far. Bennett and fringe orthodox parties on the right are adamantly opposed to making any concessions. “I will do everything in my ability, forever, to prevent a Palestinian state from being founded within the land of Israel,” the Jewish Home leader said last week.
Labor could join a conservative coalition to replace some of the orthodox parties but is unlikely to. Netanyahu lurched to the right in the weeks leading up the election in an attempt to draw back voters from Jewish Home which makes it difficult for Yachimovich to sell an alliance with Likud to left-wing voters, even as she largely stayed clear of the settlements issue during the campaign.
The only viable alternative to a right-wing bloc seems a centrist coalition that pulls in Lapid and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni who got six to seven seats in the exit polls. Such a government would still rely on the support of pro-settlers from Yisrael Beiteinu and Jewish Home but be more open to spending cuts which the orthodox parties fear will affect state stipends for their religious institutions. Israel’s government deficit rose to 4.2 percent of gross domestic product last year.
A centrist coalition would also be composed of secular parties that could lift the exemption on orthodox Jewish students serving in the military. Netanyahu was unable to do so despite considerable public support while he depended on fringe religious parties for his majority.