Ambiguous Election Result Leaves Israel in Flux

By Patrick Goodenough | February 11, 2009 | 4:51 AM EST

Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni attends an election night rally in Tel Aviv early Wednesday Feb. 11, 2009. (AP Photo)

( – Israeli voters handed Kadima and its leader, Tzipi Livni, a small victory in elections Tuesday, but the strong showing of right-wing parties makes it far from certain that she will be able to build a workable governing coalition and become Israel’s second female prime minister.
As results came in overnight Wednesday, the margin of difference between Kadima and Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud in turn narrowed and widened, settling finally on a 28-27 seat lead for Kadima in the 120-member Knesset.
A surging Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel our Home”) party under Avigdor Lieberman looked set to take 15 seats and, in a showing that marks a new low point for the once-mighty Labor, Ehud Barak’s party struggled into fourth place, two seats behind Yisrael Beiteinu.
To rule as prime minister, Livni would need to muster a coalition of at least 61 seats. But with conservative parties together looking set to control about 65 seats, building a coalition would be a significantly easier task for Netanyahu.
Far from conceding defeat, the Likud is predicting its leader will be the next prime minister.

Likud Party leader Binyamin Netanyahu greets supporters at his election headquarters in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009. (AP Photo)

“The Israeli people have spoken loud and clear, our way has triumphed and we will lead with it,” Netanyahu told supporters and party workers in Tel Aviv late on Tuesday night. “The national camp led by the Likud has clearly won the edge.”
Whoever forms the next government, the outcome shows a sizeable swing to the right, with the Likud, which held only 12 seats in the previous Knesset, more than doubling its representation.
Israel’s proportional representation electoral system sets a low threshold – just two percent – for entry into parliament, thus favoring smaller parties. Coalition negotiations are typically drawn out and messy, as small parties demand concessions from an aspiring prime minister in return for their support.
Lieberman, who campaigned on a controversial platform of tying citizenship to an oath of loyalty to the state, did not do as well as some predicted, but has nonetheless emerged as a factor neither Likud nor Kadima can ignore.
Although the head of the biggest party after an election is usually asked to form the next government this is not stipulated by law.
After consulting with all party leaders once final results are officially declared, Shimon Peres, Israel’s ceremonial president, may ask Netanyahu to form the next government if persuaded that Livni will not succeed in doing so. Shas, which looks set to control 11 seats, has already said it will recommend to Peres that he turn to Netanyahu.
If Netanyahu is asked to form a government, he will likely team up with nationalist and orthodox parties in a right-wing coalition that is hawkish on Iran and skeptical about making concessions to the Palestinians – policies that will complicate U.S.-sponsored efforts to reach a Mideast peace settlement, and are at odds the Obama administration’s overtures to Iran.
If Peres asks Livni to form a government, her potential options include:
-- Trying to negotiate a broad unity coalition built around Kadima, Likud and Labor, a move likely to face resistance in the two latter parties. In an early overture late Tuesday, Livni called on Netanyahu to join a Kadima-led unity coalition. A Likud presence in such a government would hamper Livni’s ability to make concessions in peace talks with the Palestinians.
-- Trying to build a coalition with Yisrael Beiteinu and Labor. It remains to be seen whether Lieberman would be willing to enter a Kadima-led coalition – and if so, what price he will demand. Labor is also uncomfortable about the prospect of being in government with Lieberman, and his presence would also rule out the entry of smaller left-wing parties. She could also turn to Shas, but the ultra orthodox party refused to back Livni last year because, it said, she would divide Jerusalem.
-- Agreeing to an arrangement that would see Kadima and Likud rotate leadership over the next four years. Likud and Labor had such an pact after a stalemated election in 1984, with Labor’s Peres and Yitzhak Shamir of Likud swapping the premiership halfway through the term.
Whatever happens, calls for reform of Israel’s electoral system are likely to grow. Those arguing for change say that lifting the electoral threshold would strengthen the bigger parties, reduce fragmentation and stabilize government.
Previous attempts to do so, however, have run in opposition from small parties which, having edged their way into parliament are reluctant to endorse changes that would see them drop out again.
The Central Elections Committee reported that 65.2 percent of 5.2 million eligible voters cast ballots on Tuesday. The turnout was two percent higher than in the last election, in 2006.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow