Likud wins the Knesset

The Israeli elections for the 20th Knesset were celebrated last Tuesday, March 17. The 120 Members of the Knesset (MKs) are directly elected to four-year terms, subject to calls for early elections. Knesset seats are allocated among the various parties, and any party or electoral alliance must pass the election threshold of 3.25% of the overall vote to be allocated a Knesset seat. Final election turnout was reported to be 72.3%.

The incumbent Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, from the Likud, declared victory in the election, since his party picked up the highest number of votes. Initially, exit polls reported a virtual tie between the Likud and the Zionist Union, a coalition headed by Isaac Herzog, leader of the opposition, and Tzipi Livni, former Minister of Justice.

Both Netanyahu and Herzog began attempts to build a coalition in preparation for a possible government. In a statement, the Likud Party said that Netanyahu planned to form a coalition government within weeks. He has already begun negotiations with Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home Party, which won eight Knesset seats, and with an assortment of smaller religious parties. Kulanu, a centrist party headed by former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, claimed 10 seats and could be another coalition partner. While Herzog remained hopeful, when the counting of the votes on March 18 revealed a significant lead for the Likud, he acknowledged that “the only realistic option” was to remain in the opposition. He has stated in a March 19 post-election interview that he still hopes to be the prime minister. Herzog said he and Livni would continue to lead a large and strong sector of the Israeli public that wants a Jewish and democratic state that is both safe and just. “We will not apologize and we will not lower our flags, but we will serve the people who took to the streets and to the ballot box with a big hopes,” Herzog stated. Similarly, Lyvni expressed that “[t]he Netanyahu dream government is the nightmare government for Israel and therefore we must not give up and we need to fight for our path from the opposition.”

While Mr. Netanyahu ended up with more seats, it is Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, who will decide which leader gets to cobble together the next coalition government, the norm in a multiparty state where no one party has ever won an outright majority in the Knesset. President Reuven Rivlin said he would work for a national unity government.

Netanyahu’s “victory” comes after he moved sharply to the right in the campaign’s final days. On the eve of the election, the prime minister promised that a Palestinian state would not be created on his watch, and bragged that he had approved settlement construction for the specific purpose of undermining the contiguity of a Palestinian state. In addition, his behavior in social media reflects his on-the-ground aggressiveness, with posts that seemed right-out racist (“Right-wing rule is in danger. Arab voters are streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations.”). Such statements, along with the prime minister’s staunch opposition to the current negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, could sow the seeds for tension with President Barack Obama’s administration for the next several years. The Obama administration has already been describing a weaker and colder relationship between the United States and Israel in light of Netanyahu’s victory, with some saying the United States could support a United Nations resolution setting down principles for Palestinian statehood.

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