Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Israel's election: Nobody likes Bibi, but everyone votes for him

Israel's election: Nobody likes Bibi, but everyone votes for him

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for early elections last December there was a schizophrenic character to a lot of the analysis. Most observers thought Bibi would probably win again; but there were also predictions that perhaps Bibi had started to run out of political puff.

Closer to the election there were polls warning Bibi might lose; it is fair to say there were many people in Israel and internationally hoping he might. Even in Likud strongholds that once sang 'Bibi, King of Israel', there seemed to be a waning enthusiasm for the Prime Minister, driven by difficult economic circumstances and a growing weariness with the scandals that always seemed to hover around Bibi and his wife Sara.

In fact, a senior member of Bibi's own party reputedly offered this hopeful piece of analysis ahead of the election to an Israeli newspaper (unattributed of course):

If we win, that would be excellent...But even if we lose, it will be a healthy and good process for the Likud. Netanyahu will go home, and a whole generation of potential leaders will finally be able to contend for the leadership and transform Likud from a party that scratches 20 seats to a true ruling party.

And yet, despite exit polls predicting an almost dead heat between Bibi and his Zionist Union rival Yitzhak Herzog (27-26 seats), Bibi's Likud party won 30 seats to Zionist Union's 24, a big win by Israeli standards. (This also suggests, incidentally, that either there is something wrong with Israeli exit polls or some Israelis did not want to admit that they voted for Bibi.)

There is no doubt that a little panic had crept into the Bibi camp. [fold]

A week before the poll he declared that there would be no Palestinian state under his watch, because any territory ceded would quickly fall to Islamic extremists. On election day he warned, via Facebook, that Israeli Arabs were being bussed to the polls by left wing NGOs, imploring his supporters to save his nationalist government.

But it also seems that panic worked.

Bibi's emergency campaign to shore up his right-wing base won Likud seats, largely at the expense of other right-wing parties, particularly Naftali Bennet's Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home). He now enters the usually febrile period of post-election coalition formation in a strong position. There will, of course, be the usual courtships and tantrums, both real and affected. But people who complained bitterly about Bibi while they were in government with him will happily take their (ministerial) seats again.

The real question is how ideologically narrow the new government will be. Israel's President Reuven Rivlin, whose role it is to invite one of the party leaders to form a government, has called for a government of national unity built around Likud and Zionist Union. But Bibi could also form a more ideologically coherent government of just right-wing and ultra-orthodox parties (Haartez has a great interactive that allows you to explore the options and build your own ruling coalition.)

The former seems unlikely at this stage. In particular, Labor members of Zionist Union will be urging Herzog to stay out. Bibi could also bring in the Centrist Yesh Atid (There is an Alternative) at the expense of the ultra-orthodox parties, but this would mean a kiss and make-up with its leader Yair Lapid, whose spat with Bibi helped prompt the early election.

Yet if a narrow government might be more preferable to Bibi and more politically possible, it will also make Israel's government less palatable internationally. This matters insofar as the new government will be trying to convince the world not to strike a nuclear deal with Iran, and to deflect growing efforts by the Palestinians to condemn Israel in the UN and take it to the International Court of Justice.

Experience has taught me to never rule anything out in Israeli politics. A bit like Bibi's election victory, things that seem unlikely one week, somehow turn out to be inevitable the next.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user IsraeliInUSA.

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