Netanyahu scores stunning victory – but at what cost?

The Israeli leader may be able to form a more stable government than his last, but he had to run hard to the right in the campaign and reverse his stance supporting a Palestinian state.

Dan Balilty/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets supporters at the party's election headquarters in Tel Aviv, Wednesday, March 18, 2015. Netanyahu's ruling Likud Party scored a resounding victory in the country's election, final results showed Wednesday, a stunning turnaround after a tight race that had put his lengthy rule in jeopardy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 11th-hour campaign decision to swerve deep into right-wing territory – reversing his support for a Palestinian state and urging supporters to counter “droves” of Arab voters – has paid off in a stunning victory.

His Likud party, trailing its leftist opponents in the final polls, not only closed the gap but surged to a six-seat victory over the Zionist Camp’s 24 seats in national elections Tuesday, according to a near-complete tally Wednesday morning.

The clear margin will almost certainly give Mr. Netanyahu a fourth term as prime minister. And while President Reuven Rivlin called Tuesday night for the two top parties to form a national unity government, both rejected the idea.

Netanyahu now looks much better positioned to build a right-wing nationalist government that would allow him to govern unfettered by the wide ideological differences that doomed his previous coalition.

“Dear friends, against all odds, we got a great victory for the Likud party,” he said in a jubilant election night speech at Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv, to chants of “Bibi! Bibi! Bibi!”

The fiercely fought campaign, which just days before the election seemed headed toward a major political upheaval, was in many ways a referendum on Netanyahu. The two main campaign slogans were, “Only Netanyahu” and “Just not Netanyahu.”

With turnout increasing to 68.4 percent, and nearly a quarter of the votes cast for Likud, the voters’ answer was clear. But the political and social cost – never mind the $60 million price-tag of holding elections – remains to be seen. Once the confetti settles, and Netanyahu turns to the task of actually trying to rule a deeply fractured country besieged by enemies, he will be facing many of the same challenges – but with few fresh ideas, and perhaps fewer friends.

“I was very disappointed with the fact that there was no real discussion about the issues,” Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein of the Likud party told reporters Tuesday night in Tel Aviv. “It was probably one of the lowest campaigns we had, and we wasted the opportunity as a country and a society, because when exactly are we going to discuss the real issues if not during an election campaign?”

How Netanyahu prepared for a fourth victory

Netanyahu called early elections last fall after firing two of his coalition partners, Finance Minister Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni of the Hatnua party. He argued that he couldn’t govern effectively with such an ideological gap. One of the divisive issues was the coalition parties' opposition to a bill that would have formally identified Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, a move some saw as undermining its democratic nature and marginalizing the country’s 20 percent Arab population.

At the time, another Netanyahu victory seemed a pretty sure bet. But Ms. Livni’s decision to partner with the Labor party’s Isaac Herzog gave the prime minister a run for his money, attracting voters with their more moderate position on Palestinians as well as their commitment to socioeconomic issues. As of the final polls last Friday, they were projected to win by three to four seats.

So Netanyahu, widely recognized even by his foes as a shrewd politician, abruptly switched tack. After weeks of promoting himself as the only leader who could protect Israel against Iran, Hamas, and the Islamic State, he started talking about the things that were hurting Likud’s traditional blue-collar base – the skyrocketing cost of housing and groceries. He vowed to appoint as finance minister Moshe Kahlon of the Kulanu party, a former Likudnik from a humble background whose monopoly-busting policies reduced charges for cellphone plans by 90 percent.

Netanyahu also openly cannibalized votes from estranged right-wing allies like Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party and Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu. A day before the vote, he declared that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch, reneging on a 2009 pledge of support for the two-state solution to the Middle East conflict.

That puts him on a collision course with the Obama administration, which is already fuming over his bombastic speech to Congress two weeks ago in which he criticized a potential Iran nuclear deal. But the reversal appears to have played well with his base.

Mobilizing ambivalent Likud voters

As early indications Tuesday showed an uptick in Israeli Arab voter turnout, Netanyahu warned his supporters that “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls,” putting a right-wing government in danger if they didn’t get out of their homes and vote.

When exit polls came in Tuesday night, it was clear that his tactics had paid off. All three Israeli TV news channels showed him pulling even with the Zionist Camp led by Mr. Herzog and Ms. Livni, with each party getting 27 of the Knesset’s 120 seats and one poll putting Likud at 28.

But only Wednesday morning was the full picture clear. With 99 percent of the votes counted, Likud is projected to get 30 seats to the Zionist Camp’s 24. Its victory came at the expense of estranged Netanyahu allies. Mr. Bennett, a rising star in the last elections, had to settle for eight seats; Mr. Lieberman was relegated to a record-low of six. Mr. Lapid of Yesh Atid, who as a rookie in 2013 captured 19 seats, also suffered and was downsized to 11.

“We had an atmosphere of a neck-and-neck race, and when you have such an atmosphere we know that … first of all you increase the turnout,” says Abraham Diskin, a political scientist and former statistician for the Central Elections Committee. “Second, the two really leading parties are gaining power from the satellite parties, and that … really happened here.”

The two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, got seven and six, respectively, and could well become coalition partners for Netanyahu. He is also courting Mr. Kahlon, whose Kulanu party secured a solid 10 seats.

The Joint List, a bloc of Arab parties, made history by becoming the third-largest bloc for the first time, with 14 seats, while the left-wing Meretz party barely squeaked into the Knesset with four.

Last-minute fears

Prof. Avi Degani, a pollster and president of the Geocartography Knowledge Group, told reporters Wednesday morning that the unexpected surge from Likud was due in part to inaccurate polling that may have galvanized long-time Likud supporters who were on the fence.

“People who supported Likud got scared…. They say, I leave my fear and my inability to decide and I’m going to save the right and the Likud.”

That certainly describes voters like Ran Ohayon, who was considering abandoning Likud but changed his mind on the eve of elections.

“There’s a serious threat,” he said, sipping a foamy coffee outside a trendy Tel Aviv café on Tuesday. “We haven’t been in this situation since the [1973 Yom] Kippur War.”

“There’s a lot of people thinking like me, and you will see that in the election,” he said.

And he was right.

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