The elections for the 20th Knesset ended, according to the television exit polls, with a slight advantage for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expected to remain in office. The enormous effort Netanyahu invested in the final days of the campaign in trying to move voters from the extreme right to his Likud party paid off. The parties headed by Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman and Eli Yishai were all battered at the polls, after Netanyahu convinced many of their supporters that Likud was no less nationalist or racist than Habayit Hayehudi, Yisrael Beiteinu or Yahad.
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Zionist Union, headed by Isaac Herzog, led in the polls throughout the campaign, but failed in its effort to defeat Likud. The Joint List demonstrated the power of unity and succeeded in increasing turnout by Arab voters, and therefore their Knesset representation as well. Meretz managed to maintain its strength, despite its voters’ fears that it wouldn’t pass the electoral threshold. Yair Lapid, as expected, lost about half his Knesset seats despite running an excellent campaign.
But despite Netanyahu’s impressive achievement, the bloc comprised of the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties lost the parliamentary majority it had in the previous Knesset. Likud cannot form a government with the extreme right and the ultra-Orthodox alone; it will need the Kulanu party’s support to form a coalition. This outcome places Kulanu’s leader, Moshe Kahlon, in a unique position: He is the person who will determine the nature of Israel’s next government.
Kahlon now bears a weighty responsibility: He must thwart the establishment of an extreme right-wing government, which would cause inestimable damage to Israel’s international standing, its democratic system of governance and relations between its Jewish majority and its Arab minority. Such a government would lack even the minimal restraints that, in the previous government, slowed settlement growth in the West Bank at least a tad and moderated anti-democratic legislation.
Kahlon declared that his party is “the real Likud.” His diplomatic platform is far more moderate than the “not one inch” stance Netanyahu presented on the eve of the election. Thus he must not let himself be tempted by the extravagant offers Netanyahu will ply him with in the coming days. The fate of the country is much more important.
Kahlon must either support Herzog for prime minister, or compel the leaders of Likud and Zionist Union to join forces in the spirit of President Reuven Rivlin – who, fearing the implications of establishing an extreme right-wing government, urged the formation of a national unity government in order to save Israeli democracy.