An election that was supposed to be one of the most predictable in Israel’s history turned out quite surprising Tuesday, as Israelis flocked to the polls in their greatest numbers since 1999, and refused to give the right wing the strong coalition that was foretold.
Exactly two-thirds, 66.6 percent, of the eligible population of Israel turned out to vote, including a little over 70 percent of prisoners and 80 percent of soldiers. Voter turnout in Arab towns hovered around 10 percent, the Times of Israel reported.
In total, the right wing and religious parties held on to 61 of 120 Knesset seats, and the left, center and Arab parties captured a combined 59, a much narrower majority than polls predicted. This stands as a possible sign that Israel is, for now, attempting a more moderate path. The biggest surprise was the strong showing for newcomer party Yesh Atid, which foiled what was supposed to be a strong victory for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
When the official count was finished, the Likud-Beiteinu right-wing coalition, with Netanyahu at its helm, remained the biggest party with just 31 seats, down from the 35 it was predicted to hold, and far below the 42 its two components won in the 2009 election.
Yesh Atid, whose name means There Is A Future, secured 19 seats for itself, beating out the hard-right Bayit Yehudi, Jewish Home. Jewish Home secured only 12 seats, down from the 13 or 14 it was expected to take. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party held onto double-digit seats, registering with 12.
Yesh Atid, founded in early 2012 by journalist and TV personality Yair Lapid, is a centrist party that espouses the two-state solution with the Palestinians, but will most likely join up with a Likud-led coalition. Two days before the election, Lapid wrote on his Facebook page, “I do not think that the Arabs want peace,” and in an interview with Israel National News, said, “What I want is not a new Middle East, but to be rid of them [the Arabs] and put a tall fence between us and them.”
On the left, the once-dominant Labor party led with a catch of 17 seats, and the new HaTnua (The Movement) headed by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni won seven seats, and the further left Meretz party also weighed in at seven. The power struggle between Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich and Tzipi Livni was one of the great dramas of the election: Several left-wing parties, including Labor, tried to recruit Livni when she quit the now-defunct Kadima party in May 2012, but Livni decided to form her own, new party rather than risk giving up a chance to be prime minister. The formation of HaTnua was denounced by Yacimovich and others on the left as a move that would further fragment the left.
But the fragmentation of the left didn’t seem to hurt it as much as was predicted. Indeed, as the election day wore to a close, reports leaked out via Twitter that Netanyahu was agitated and nervous. Two hours before the polls closed, he posted a desperate message on his Facebook page in Hebrew, saying that Likud’s “rule is in danger. Drop everything and go vote for Likud now. It is vital for the state of Israel’s future.” Fifteen minutes before the polls closed, the Times of Israel reported that Likud sent its supporters a similar mass text message, in an attempt to scare up some last-minute votes.
When the final tally was in, Netanyahu again took to Facebook, and thanked the “millions of citizens who voted.” “The results clearly stated that they want me to continue to serve as prime minister. … The results show a great opportunity for many changes for all Israeli citizens. The election is behind us and there are many complex challenges ahead.”
Netanyahu also pledged to start forming a new coalition government immediately, and to make it as “as broad as possible.” The win, while less affirmative of Netanyahu’s power than he may have been hoping, is still a win nonetheless.
“We got 31 seats, it’s good news, it’s good news,” asserted Jonny Daniels, a political consultant for the Likud. “It’s more than we got in the last election [although less than the combined Likud and Israel Beitenu seats].
“I think if anything, the polls show it will be a very strong coalition,” Daniels said, bucking the claims of the Twitterati who are already predicting a shaky government at best. “We could make a small coalition government with Lapid and [Jewish Home leader Naftali] Bennett, or wider coalition and bring Shas into it at well. At the end of the day, we have a strong prime minister. He’s quietly happy with the results.”
As for the ascent of Yesh Atid, Daniels dismissed it as another political flash-in-the-pan. “We see this over and over,” he said. “You have new parties that come in every single time, and then die the next election. They make a bit of noise, and then they disappear. We saw it with Kadima, who aren’t even in the Knesset now.”
What the world is not likely to see between this election and the next is any wavering from the settlement push the government set itself on before the elections, said Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the Jerusalem Fund and the Palestine Center in Washington, D.C. Munayyer said Netanyahu’s coalition was no weaker than before, which probably spelled more settlement plans.
“There’s no radical shift in the balance between what is thought of as right as left,” Munayyer said. “The parties on both sides of this supposed divide are not that different in terms of policies toward the Palestinians. It will probably mean that a party like Jewish Home may find a place in the government, and be in a position to do some serious damage.”
The U.S., for its part, weighed in on the elections cautiously. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told the Associated Press regardless of the outcome of the elections, policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian question would not change.
“We will continue to make clear that only through direct negotiations can the Palestinians and the Israelis ... achieve the peace they both deserve."
Full results of the election, in Hebrew, are available here.
Maya covers the U.N., Europe, and the Middle East for IBTimes. She joined the company in July 2012 after having previously worked with DNAinfo.com and Gawker.