Benjamin Netanyahu has never won an election by a large majority, or even a comfortable one. His victories were always by a whisker, bought with blood, sweat and tears. That’s how it was in 1996, when he edged out Shimon Peres by half a percent. That’s how it was in 2009, when Likud actually got one seat less than Kadima.
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This tradition wasn’t broken on Tuesday night: The joint Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu slate that he headed suffered a searing collapse, and he personally received a resounding slap in the face from rightist voters. Exit polls showed the joint list losing 11 seats compared to its combined strength in the outgoing Knesset. The rightist bloc, of which he is the unchallenged leader, also lost three to four seats.
He’ll retain his job, but under tougher conditions, with a less comfortable coalition and a party whose discontent will only grow. And it’s hard to believe that Time magazine will once again crown him “King Bibi.” On Tuesday, we got a new king: Yair.
Yair Lapid’s victory is the victory of modern politics the politics of the Internet and reality shows. He’s undoubtedly a nice, well-meaning guy. But his experience begins and ends with presenting television shows and writing scripts and newspaper columns. In another month, he’s liable to find himself in the cabinet room reading intelligence and defense material that he didn’t even know existed.
Shaul Mofaz, a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and defense minister, might not even make it into the Knesset. Lapid, after a mere 12 months in politics, got 19 seats. (You could say something similar about Habayit Hayehudi’s Naftali Bennett.)
The Lapid phenomenon will be dissected at length in the coming days. What can be said now is that over the last two weeks, almost all the polls identified his growing strength. The last ones, published on Friday, showed him with 12 to 13 seats, and anyone who knew anything about polling knew he would continue to rise. The question was by how much. Last night, we got the answer: a lot. He captured almost all the floating voters.
On one hand, he represented a protest vote. But on the other, most of his voters expect him to join the government.
The political picture that emerged last night is crystal clear: There is no reasonable government meaning none that Netanyahu could head without becoming an international pariah without Lapid. On paper, Netanyahu could form a government comprised solely of rightist and ultra-Orthodox parties, but he knows that would be the beginning of the end of his career.
Thus Lapid has become the most important player in the political system. Since he doesn’t see himself as prime minister and it’s hard to see him putting together a coalition even if he did he has two choices: become head of the opposition, or the most senior and influential minister in the third Netanyahu government. If Lapid chooses the latter and plays his cards wisely, he really could carry out his campaign promise to effect change.
If the exit polls are accurate, Netanyahu, Lapid and Bennett between them have 62 seats enough to form a government. Such a government could implement many desperately needed reforms: changing the system of government, drafting the ultra-Orthodox, passing a responsible budget.
In short, all of Lapid’s campaign promises are in his hands. He can fulfill them all.
It’s hard to believe, but the exit polls showing Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu with 31 seats elicited a sigh of relief from the ruling party: Earlier in the day, it had feared it would drop below 30, and that the center-left bloc would succeed in getting a blocking majority.
At noon, therefore, it launched a last-ditch effort to scare its voters into actually voting, warning that “Likud’s rule is in danger.” Hatnuah’s Tzipi Livni and Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich helped by repeatedly declaring that they scented revolution in the air. And in the final hours, the trend reversed: Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu inched back above 30.