(Editor’s note: This is a revised version of the story posted last night and contains additions throughout.)
Israeli voters showed again Tuesday just how unpredictable they could be.
Political pundits expected this week’s election for Israel’s 19th Knesset (parliament) to be an easy win for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud-Beiteinu Party.
He did come in first, but final results from Israel’s Central Elections Committee show him winning with a much slimmer margin than expected — 31 seats, down from the 42 his governing coalition currently holds.
In total, the left-wing voting bloc won 59 seats in the next Knesset compared to 61 for the right-wing bloc. The razor thin margin of difference suggests that the next coalition, which is likely to be led by Netanyahu, will be broader, more centrist, and harder to cobble together.
It could be weeks before that coalition is in place.
Arguably, the real winner of Tuesday’s election was the runner-up, Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, which is projected to win 19 seats in the next Knesset.
“This was totally unexpected.” Gregg Roman, director of community relations for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said at the Federation’s election party Tuesday. “He (Lapid) was supposed to get 12 to 13 seats max.”
(Some 30 people attended the party, watching live newscasts from Israel as the party leaders addressed their followers while election returns were flashed on the bottom of the big screen. Roman translated the speeches for those in the room.)
As for the rest of the field, Labor, led by Shelly Yachimovich, came in third with 15 seats, followed by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home), led by Naftali Bennett, 11 each; United Torah Judaism, an Ashkenazi haredi party, 7; Hatnuah, led by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, 6; left-wing Meretz, under Zahava Gal-On, 6 seats (doubling its electoral strength over the current Knesset); Ra’am-Ta’al 5 seats; Hadash received 4; and the National Democratic Assembly received 3.
For much of Election Night, it looked as though Kadima, the party founded by Ariel Sharon, which led the governing coalition just five years earlier, wouldn’t win a single seat this time, in a stunning reversal of its political fortunes. However, with 90 percent of the vote counted, Haaretz reported Kadima would likely win two seats after all, if the returns hold up.
All told, more than 3.6 million Israelis went to the polls Tuesday.
Lapid, a television personality and son of the late former Justice Minister Josef “Tommy” Lapid, ran on a strongly domestic platform. His Yash Atid party favors government reform by raising the Knesset election threshold from 2 percent to 6 percent, converting half the school system to vo-tech training, lowering barriers between secular and religious education, and military or national service for the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities.
Lapid’s showing suggests that Netanyahu, who is considered to have the best chance to form the next government, may have to assemble a much broader coalition than expected, including centrist parties.
“Israel has always in the past proven surprises can happen, Elad Strohmayer, deputy consul general to the Mid-Atlantic Region, said by phone in a Q&A to partygoers in Pittsburgh. “It says a lot about Israel as a democracy.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)