The unimaginable may have happened in tonight’s Israeli elections. Based on initial exit polls, the age of Benjamin Netanyahu may have come to an end. If exit polls are to be trusted, Benny Gantz may end up getting first crack at setting up a new government. Israel stood at the edge of a religious-nationalist abyss and, at the very last moment, took a step back.
A note of caution is nonetheless in order. On more than one occasion in the past, Israel has gone to sleep with one election winner, only to wake up to another. Based on experience, the exit polls tend to favor the left at the expense of the right. Based on the results, it doesn’t take all that much for Netanyahu’s currently perceived defeat to turn into the sweetest of victories.
Having said that, all three exit polls conducted by the main television networks were unanimous: Netanyahu failed to achieve his coveted 61 member majority and his Likud lost its neck-and-neck race with Gantz’s Kahol Lavan for the title of Israel's biggest party.
It’s a double whammy that Netanyahu will find hard to overcome.
Netanyahu’s failure to achieve 61 seats could mean that he won’t be granted parliamentary immunity, which was his primary objective. Kahol Lavan outperforming Likud means that President Reuven Rivlin is more than likely to appoint Gantz first to try to set up a new coalition. While Gantz negotiates, Netanyahu will have a hard time fending off a potential uprising by his disgruntled Likud underlings. His counterinsurgency efforts started the moment the exit polls came out.
The man of the hour is Avigdor Lieberman, just as he planned. Without him, neither side can claim a majority. If Lieberman doesn’t live up to his reputation as the most cynical of Israeli politicians, and leverages his way back to his right-wing hinterland – Netanyahu, remember, would grant him half the kingdom at least – then the prime minister will find it impossible to expand his expected coalition base of Likud, Ayelet Shaked’s Yamina and the two ultra-Orthodox parties. Just as Netanyahu feared all along, it was the failure of the Kahanist Otzma party to pass the 3.25% election threshold that doomed him.
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Much depends now on Netanyahu’s behavior in the coming weeks and days. If he decides to accept defeat and exit quietly, Israel will suddenly be plunged into a strange new world, devoid of the man that has run its affairs for over a decade. Judging by his desperate if not hysterical conduct over the past few days, however, Netanyahu is more likely to flail about wildly, contest the validity of the elections, describe himself as the victim of a plot and lead Israel to political mayhem and even civil strife.
Nonetheless, the likeliest bottom line, assuming that the exit polls aren’t completely off the mark, is that Israel will be led, sooner or later, by a grand coalition of Likud and Kahol Lavan, with or without Netanyahu. Such “national unity governments” were once seen as prescriptions for paralysis and stalemate and a new one may not be any different. Nonetheless, when compared to the xenophobic, theocratic, democracy-hating government that seemed likeliest, a Likud-Kahol Lavan alliance would be like a breath of fresh air, a welcome respite from the increasingly turbulent, divisive and hateful atmosphere that accompanies Netanyahu wherever he goes.