Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked to be on track to win reelection on Tuesday, when exit polls predicted his conservative party would win a plurality of the seats in the new Knesset.
Voters to the right
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 held separately before the election.
Likud‘s loss was Naftali Bennett’s gain. His 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 apparently switched to Jewish Home because it more staunchly defends settlement construction in West Bank territory that is also claimed by the Palestinians.
Middle-class support for centrists
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 middle-class votes by promising to overhaul the education system, reduce a housing shortage and abolish the military draft exemption for Jewish seminary students.
Projections from Israel’s three major broadcasters showed the parties on the right with a slim majority of 61 against 59 for left and center-left parties.
The liberal Kadima, which emerged with a plurality from the last election, did not win any seats.
Bad for the peace process
If the exit poll numbers bear out — official results are expected Wednesday morning — Netanyahu would be able to continue a right-wing coalition that is less eager to advance the peace process with the Palestinians and compromise on settlement construction.
Bennett and fringe Orthodox parties on the right are adamantly opposed to making 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 would make it difficult for Yachimovich to justify an alliance with Likud.
The only viable alternative to a right-wing bloc seems to be 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 would reduce state stipends for religious institutions.
Israel’s government deficit rose to 4.2 percent of gross domestic product last year.
A centrist coalition could also lift the exemption on Orthodox Jewish students serving in the military. There is strong public support for this, but the religious parties have so far prevented Netanyahu from ending the exemption.