Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fared worse than expected in this week’s election. His Likud-Beitenu Party won just 31 seats. The right-wing religious HaBayit Yehudi Party (leader – Naftali Bennett), claimed 11 seats. The real surprise was the second place win by the centrist Yesh Atid Party, led by Yair Lapid, the former television news presenter, which claimed 19 mandates. The results mean the political left and right are equally split in Israel, and what happens next is anybody’s guess. VOA senior reporter Cecily Hilleary spoke with David Horovitz, founding editor of the online publication, The Times of Israel, to get his take on the outcome.
Hilleary: What do we make of what happened yesterday?
Horovitz: It’s a very surprising and interesting result. The polls did not show a big swing to the right, even before the elections, but in fact, rather than any swing to the right, there’s been a move to the center. The right bloc has actually dwindled. It’s a more hard line right wing, but it’s less numerous, and Israelis, at least a goodly proportion, registered a protest vote. They supported lots of fresh faces, new parties. Inexperience was a plus and experience tampered against some parties and some politicians. A very, very interesting result.
Hilleary: What does this say about the country?
Horovitz: Well, first of all, I think it says – ‘what an extraordinarily vibrant democracy.’ It was an election day in which there were no untoward instances of any significance whatsoever. Turnout was in the mid-60s (percentage-wise), though it’s not entirely clear yet. This pure, proportional representation system where 12 parties will probably sit in parliament, a very diverse and somewhat sectoral electorate, I guess you’d say.
The key focus, I don’t think, was Palestinians or Iran. It was governance and the economy, although those other issues play into the mix. But I think there are going to be at least 50 new faces in the 120-seat parliament, and I think that underlines that Israelis wanted something fresh, something new.
Hilleary: The burden is on Netanyahu now to form a government. Assuming he can do so, which way is he more likely to turn?
Horovitz: Well, that’s a big question because people think elections are over, so we know what’s going to happen. But, in fact, elections are over, and now the really interesting part starts. He has lots of options, but he is weakened, as you know, and therefore they are not as good as he would have expected. He can just about, probably cobble together a narrow, right-wing and Orthodox coalition but he really doesn’t want to. So he will want the new star, Yair Lapid with his 19 seats; he’ll want him in the government with him, but Lapid comes at a price, and Netanyahu today was speaking about the public seeking a domestic agenda including bringing the ultra-Orthodox service and economic and electoral reform. Those are issues where he has common ground with Lapid, but not with the ultra-Orthodox parties. So, it’s going to be a very interesting process of negotiations and it may not be quick and it is conceivable, I suppose, that it might not even be successful, although I think ultimately Netanyahu probably will be able to put together a coalition.
Hilleary: He’s got Avigdor Lieberman on his right, who may be reining him in from negotiating too much with Yesh Atid.
Horovitz: I don’t think so. I think if the focus is on the domestic agenda, Lieberman can live with that and the Jewish Home Party to Netanyahu’s right can live with that. It depends on whether Lapid wants to make a real issue of some of the diplomatic security issues. Though I suppose he won’t.
Hilleary: And what would those be? What does Lapid stand for?
Horovitz: I would say, first and foremost, he stands for a fresh face at the head of a party of complete parliamentary neophytes. There is nobody on that 19-strong slate who has sat in parliament before, and that’s why he chose them. He’s got rabbis. He’s got Ethiopian-born educators. He’s got a very, very nice mix, and I would trust his mix of quite experienced people in journalism, in local government and political activism. But no former parliamentarians. And people like that. And he’s said that his priority will be to stick up for the middle class, to try and build a government for as wide a consensus as possible, to seek a coalition of moderates…. So the specifics of what he stands for we’re about to find out. And his ability to maneuver. He’s positioned himself expectedly in the middle ground. He avoided an alliance with the parties to his left, and that was very profitable for him in terms of votes. He’s played a very smart game so far.
Hilleary: If we see a Netanyahu coalition with the center, how is this likely to impact three issues I’m particularly interested in: Iran, the peace process and relations with the United States.
Horovitz: Well, I don’t think there will be a coalition with the center alone. In other words, I don’t think the numbers are there, I don’t think the will is there and I don’t think he wants it. He wants a mix. He wants to be in the middle of his own coalition. So he’ll want some of the ultra-Orthodox and hard right parties and he’ll want some of the center and center-left parties, and now we’ll see how that plays out.
Hilleary: How in the world can such a diverse, polarized mix come to anything? Is it possible that he won’t be able to form that coalition.
Horovitz: It’s possible – anything is possible. The odds are that he will, but nothing is certain, and even if he does, its stability is not certain. Nobody should tell you anything definitive about that.
In terms of your question before – Netanyahu on Iran: He has his view, but it is constrained by the security realities, by the security establishment’s recommendations, and I don’t think that is hugely affected by any likely coalition composition.
On the Palestinians, he is perfectly capable of appearing to be ready to push for a climate in which the Palestinians might come back to the peace table without alienating parties to the left or right because the Palestinians themselves have been so unwilling to come to the table. So I think Netanyahu can probably juggle that.
And by extension, the relationship with the United States he can manage as well, I think.
If he were in a situation where the Palestinian leadership was credibly telling the United States, ‘We’re ready for a deal, where do we sign?’ - then maybe there’d be a real rupture or potential for a rupture. But although there are real disagreements over the settlement issue and so on, the United States is pretty wary of the Palestinians as well. So I think that too is an issue that Netanyahu, at least in the short term, will be able to manage. In the medium and long term, [it’s] anybody’s guess.
Hilleary: Is there any possibility that Yair Lapid could end up prime minister and his Yesh Atid party running the government?
Horovitz: Yes, there is an arithmetical possibility, but I think it would be very, very unlikely. The alliance there of diverse and conflicting parties would defy, I think, even the malleability of Israeli coalition politics. Netanyahu will likely be able to put together some combination and govern. Lapid, I can’t see that he’d get to do that. He might try to drive an improbably hard bargain. There are people saying he should insist on a rotation of the prime ministership with Netanyahu. Netanyahu is firmly in the driving seat, ironically even though he has lost about a quarter of his own natural home base.
Hilleary: How much power does Shimon Peres have as President, assuming it is next Wednesday and they don’t call for an extension, could he possibly make a different call?
Horovitz: No, he really can’t. He cannot defy the recommendations of the party leaders. If they come to him and most of them – or the majority of them say, ‘Please charge Mr. Netanyahu with building a coalition,’ Peres would really be departing from what is largely a ceremonial role in charging somebody else with the task. It would be scandalous, and I don’t think for a second that he would do it.
But if something is afoot within the political circles, if the party leaders are moved effectively by Lapid and the most improbable scenario that I’ve just rejected becomes probable, then Peres will follow the line of recommendations. But he won’t defy the party leaders and choose somebody that is not recommended.
Listen to Cecily Hilleary’s interview with David Horovitz (9:23)
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Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for Dubai-TV English. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf regions, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA and MEV a keen understanding of the region's top social, cultural and political issues.