BEERSHEVA, Israel — When he called for new elections late last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cast the contest as a referendum on his rule. On Tuesday, amid early energetic turnout and anecdotal evidence of successful get-out-the-vote operations by Netanyahu’s political enemies on the left, the prime minister got what he wanted.
Put simply, he won. But even with the decisive victory of his Likud Party, which according to vote totals, garnered 30 of the Knesset’s 120 seats to the Zionist Union slate’s 24, the first task of forming a coalition may prove difficult.
In this windswept gateway city to southern Israel’s Negev Desert region, pretty much the only thing voters agreed on in the March 17 parliamentary elections was that love him or hate him, it was all about Netanyahu.
Noa Herman, 26, a student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev from Asheklon, said she was casting her vote for the Zionist Union bloc led by Isaac Herzog, who conceded the election late Tuesday night.
“I believe Herzog [is] someone who can lead and also represent all the different groups in Israel,” said Herman. “In our party, there are Arabs, Russians and people from the periphery and young people, so this party can represent all of Israel.”
She believes Zionist Union, which is made up of Herzog’s Labor Party and the Tnuah Party led by former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, has the best approach to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and appreciates the bloc’s socialist-leaning economics.
“I also believe we need a change in Israel, because I’m scared if there [is] another right-wing government,” added Herman. “I am hopeful we’ll win.”
President Reuven Rivlin must now ask either Herzog or Netanyahu to try to form a governing coalition representing at least 61 seats, but Netanyahu already began calling leaders of other parties.
If Herzog is asked, he’ll have a bigger hill to climb. Meretz, a natural left-wing coalition partner, won just four seats. He might include the Joint Arab List parties, representing 14 seats, in his coalition, but he would still need the support of a centrist party such as Kulanu — a new faction led by former Likudnik Moshe Kahlon that will get 10 seats — and possibly a haredi Orthodox party such as Shas, which garnered seven seats, or United Torah Judaism, which will receive six seats.
The inclusion of either of the religious parties, though, might prove problematic, given their aversion to establishing a Palestinian state and their support for social policies that are anathema to most of Herzog’s constituency.
A center-right coalition led by Netanyahu and including Likud’s 30 seats, along with Jewish Home’s eight, six from Israel Beitenu — a secular right-wing party led by Avigdor Liberman — and the support of Shas and Kulanu’s faction, altogether totaling 61 seats, is one of several possibilities. In opinion polls leading up to Election Day, Israelis even indicated their preference for Netanyahu to continue to an unprecedented fourth term as prime minister.
In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, voters took advantage of the Election Day national holiday to stroll the streets with their kids, picnic on urban patches of grass and go shopping. They walked among political banners and dodged volunteers angling to stop them with last-minute appeals. But behind the carefree attitude, voters were divided — not just between left and right, but between whether to support the flagship party of their political camp or one of the smaller, more ideologically driven factions.
“There shouldn’t be extremes this way or that,” said Yakir Yaakovi, 23, a dry fruit merchant in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market and a Netanyahu voter.
Just before the election, a Likud rally in Tel Aviv reportedly drew more than 25,000 people, and Netanyahu had taken in recent days to warning right-wing voters not to abandon Likud for fear of granting an electoral win to Zionist Union.
Such efforts didn’t faze Gershon Swimmer, who moved to Israel in 2008 from Atlanta and was voting for Jewish Home, the religious Zionist, pro-settler party led by Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. Swimmer felt confident that Netanyahu would win re-election and wanted to push him further to the right.
“I feel Naftali Bennett and the party represent me,” he said. “He doesn’t want to give back land, he’s strong on the economy, and he’s religious.”
In Beersheva, Meital Dadosh, 21, who recently completed her mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces, said she was voting for Shas, but Nisim Vaknin, 51, was fully on the side of Netanyahu and Likud.
“I think it’s a strong party and that Netanyahu is strong,” Vaknin said through a translator. “[Netanyahu] stands up for his principles. He doesn’t want to return West Bank territories; he stands up for his state.”
Still, Vaknin acknowledged the scandals that have tainted Netanyahu’s campaign, such as spending by the prime minister’s residence viewed by the public as profligate and the deterioration of late in Israeli-U.S. relations.
“There have been problems in the past, but I hope that the elections will improve them,” he said.
Guy Ben-Porat, head of the Dep-artment of Public Policy and Admin-istration in the Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management at Ben Gurion University, called Tuesday’s balloting “a very personal election.”
“It’s around Netanyahu,” said Ben-Porat. “It’s very much [about] his character and the people around him and on questions of integrity.”
Ben-Porat saw little ideological debate in the run-up to the election and credited the two centrist parties, Kulanu and Yesh Atid, with turning it “into a very technical election” by appealing to Israeli citizens’ economic concerns. Polling last week indicated the availability of housing and the cost of living topped Israelis’ agendas.
But “Jerusalem, settlements, refugees — the two large parties and the two centrist parties have said very little about these issues,” said Ben-Porot. “It’s almost completely off the agenda. I think it shows on the one hand that Israelis are skeptical on the prospect for peace, so it doesn’t really matter who will be in charge, it will all be the same.”
Mazal Peretz, 51, and her friend, Orly Pahina, 47, arrived at a polling booth in Beersheva before 6 a.m. to set up campaign signs in support of Kahlon and Kulanu. They spent the remainder of the day assisting elderly people and those with disabilities to vote.
Peretz said through a translator that she hopes the election will bring “a social change, that it will change the way people think, that things will get better, and [Israelis] will wake up with a smile on their face.”
“I believe him,” Pahina said of Kahlon. “He’s working on behalf of the people.”
She offered the example of Kahlon’s push last year to dissolve the monopoly of cellphone carriers in Israel.
“It used to be very expensive for cellphones,” she said, adding, “He’s doing a lot for all the handicapped people.”
Tour guide Ori Zaber, 23, was adamant in his support for Meretz.
“I might be the only one who will be behind it, but I want Bibi to go,” he said. “We need a change, internal and external. I’m going to vote [Meretz] because Herzog’s is the biggest party, and because without Meretz in the Knesset, things would not look the same. And they’re right on the edge of disappearing.
“I’m not going to support any party that will support Bibi,” added Zaber. “I want to change the leadership.”
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who led the Israel Project for 10 years, was in Tel Aviv for the Jewish Funders Network conference this week. She said this was her 30th trip to the Jewish state and that she’s noticed a change in how the people respond to elections. Some people are simply not interested.
“This time … there are the paid ads on TV and the paid billboards that are everywhere, but if you drive by people’s houses or apartments, you don’t see that they’ve put signs in their windows or on their yards,” said Mizrahi, who has worked with all of the major candidates through her advocacy efforts. “They’re not going to stand up and wave a flag for them, because they’re not that sold, and they’re not that excited about them.”
As an outside observer, Mizrahi said she believes this election could offer a chance to regroup and improve Israel’s relationship across the entire global community.
“Netanyahu has a negative relationship with the president of the United States, and he’s had challenges with French and German leaders,” she said, “so this actually could be an opportunity for people who care about Israel’s place in the world to hit a restart button and repair and rebuild the relationship with Western democracies, which is really important for Israel’s security.”
JTA contributed to this story.
Melissa Gerr writes for the Baltimore Jewish Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Joshua Runyan can be reached at jrunyan@