Netanyahu Is Today's Winner - but Herzog Also Exceeded Expectations

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Zionist Union's Isaac Herzog and Likud's Benjamin NetanyahuCredit: Reuters

Benjamin Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog are both winners in Israel's election on Tuesday. However, they should savor their victory – it won’t last very long.

Neither have a clear path to forming a coalition over the next few weeks. Both are at the mercy of their potential partners, particularly Netanyahu, who has to find a way of rebuilding his disastrous relationship with Moshe Kahlon. But elections are all about expectation management, and both Bibi and Bougie can justifiably claim to have exceeded expectations.

Netanyahu, however, is the biggest winner of the night. After weeks in which his campaign seemed to be sinking, with even the speech at the U.S. Congress failing to boost him in the polls, he has completed an incredible comeback.

In the last six days, while the Zionist Union and Netanyahu’s legions of detractors had the smell of victory in their nostrils, with polls indicating a growing gap in Herzog’s favor, he ran a near-perfect end game.

He cannibalized his right-wing allies, particularly Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi. It was a "Gevalt!" campaign in which he appealed to the fundamental instincts of his base, warning of a defeatist radical-left government supported by the Arab Joint List party and financed by dark international forces (from Scandinavia!).

Netanyahu shamelessly exploited every fear and prejudice to close the crucial gap and if the exit polls are anything to go by, it worked perfectly.

Israeli society will pay a price for Netanyahu’s abusive and destructive short-term tactics. That is clear even before we begin to assess the international diplomatic pressure that the next Netanyahu government – if he succeeds in forming it – is likely to face.

But as he repeatedly broadcast to his supporters over the last week, everyone is against us. And that was pretty accurate: The entire international community, with the exception of part of the Republican Party, Egypt’s General al-Sissi and Chuck Norris, was rooting for Netanyahu’s downfall.

He responded with everything he could throw at the threat to his fourth term. But now that he appears to have decisively closed the gap – he even opened a lead of his own over Herzog in one exit poll – how easy will it be to build a coalition?

President Reuven Rivlin has already called for a national unity government in which both Likud and Zionist Union will serve. Netanyahu repeatedly ruled out such a coalition throughout the campaign, but that was before the election. He knows what awaits him in Washington and Brussels and at the United Nations – Herzog and Tzipi Livni as ministers in his government could serve as useful flak-jackets.

Can Herzog even contemplate sitting in a Netanyahu government? He will demand a “rotation” and half the prime ministerial term. But since it is very difficult to see how he can build his own coalition, with the ultra-Orthodox parties refusing to sit with Yesh Atid, he will find himself faced with a take-it-or-leave-it proposal. Herzog wants to prove himself in a senior ministerial position, but at least half his parliamentary faction prefers to sit in opposition rather than prop Netanyahu up as they did in 2009.

This is where Moshe Kahlon, whose new Kulanu party will have around 10 seats, will be proven. Kahlon would have been happier seeing Netanyahu lose. That would have allowed this “man of the nationalist camp” to join a center-left government. Now he has little choice but to rejoin the prime minister he so distrusts. He will be Rivlin’s main ally in trying to convince Herzog to balance Netanyahu and Likud in a national-unity coalition.

As of now, we only have the exit polls to go on, with a smattering of actual results: The picture will not dramatically change. Netanyahu has turned the tide and Herzog has transformed himself into a national leader, with at least a claim to premiership, even if probably he won’t be sleeping in Balfour 3 any time soon.

The skepticism with which we should treat these first results should be reserved mainly for the fate of the three small parties hovering around the brink of the electoral threshold: Meretz, Yisrael Beitenu and particularly Yahad.

Even the best exit poll cannot predict how a few thousand voters, who may make the difference between political extinction and parliamentary life, voted Tuesday. New parties like Yahad, with a radical and unpredictable electorate, are particularly difficult to sample.

Many heaved a sigh of relief with the news that Kahanist Baruch Marzel won’t be a Knesset member: That may be a bit premature. The final results, especially with the right-leaning soldiers vote counted, could put Yahad through. Such an outcome would seal Herzog’s fate and be a true Gevalt.  

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