Future of Israel: Outcome of Knesset Election Presents Netanyahu With a Difficult Choice
Everyone agrees, the Israeli right wing was dealt a blow in Tuesday's Knesset elections, but a question still remains: will Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu form a strong center-left coalition, or stick to his guns on the right and end up with barely enough Knesset members on his side to make a viable government?
Though the official election results are still a week away, exit polls show Netanyahu's Likud-Yisrael Beitenu party losing twelve seats in the Knesset. In a surprising turn, most of the gains went to TV personality Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party is considered center-left.
Despite predictions that settler and ultra-nationalist parties would win big in the elections, the results showed less enthusiasm for the right wing than was expected. For example, settler politician Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home party looks to take only twelve seats instead of the 14 that polls showed they were likely to get.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday night, election analyst Yehuda Ben-Meir put it this way: "There was no shift to the right at all. If anything, there was a shift to the center."
But this still leaves the question of coalition-building. With only 31 seats, Likud is starting from a weak position to begin negotiations with possible partners. Though the announcement of a coalition deal is likely still a long way off, it's apparent Netanyahu is faced with the choice of aligning Likud with the far right or the center-left.
By aligning with far-right, settler and Orthodox parties, Netanyahu could potentially scrape together a coalition of 61 or 62 Knesset members. But if he's willing to ally with center-left and Arab parties, he'd be able to make a much stronger government of up to 89 members, though it's extremely unlikely that every left-leaning party would be included in the coalition.
Meir Sheetrit, a member of the Knesset with the liberal Hatnuah party, said an attempt by Netanyahu to ally with center-left parties would put him in a much stronger position than if he forms a right-wing coalition.
"If he will do so (ally with the center-left), he will be a leader, a statesman," Sheetrit said. "He has two possibilities: to make history or to be history."
Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi, however, downplayed the loss to Israel's right wing and predicted that Netanyahu will opt for the smaller right-wing coalition.
"The right wing block has renewed confidence, with at least a 62 mandate, which means the right wing will stay in power," he said.
Of course, Hanegbi doesn't have final decision-making power over Likud's choice of coalition partners, and the negotiations are only now beginning. The coming weeks will tell if Netanyahu accepts the fact that Israel is shifting to the left or tries to cling desperately to the past.