His party shrank, his opponents grew and his challengers multiplied.
But with the results in, it seems Benjamin Netanyahu survived the Knesset elections on Jan. 22 to serve another term as prime minister.
Netanyahu faces a bumpy road. His Likud party, together with the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, fell to 31 seats in the voting from its current total of 42.
The biggest surprise of the election was the ascendance of former TV personality Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party. Founded just a year ago, Yesh Atid won 19 seats on a platform of national service and pro-middle class economic reform. Likud’s traditional rival, the center-left Labor, grew to 15 from eight seats promoting progressive economic policy.
And another political newcomer, Naftali Bennett, is likely to push Netanyahu to the right on security issues. His Jewish Home party, a successor to the National Religious Party, increased its representation from three to 11 seats.
That’s anything but a mandate for Netanyahu, who campaigned on the slogan “A strong prime minister, a strong Israel.” Instead of being able to lead a new coalition with a large party behind him, Netanyahu will have to negotiate with rivals and forge compromises with opposing camps.
Judging from the successes of Yesh Atid, Labor and Jewish Home, Israelis cast a resounding vote for progressive economic reform and new leaders in their parliament.
The biggest thorn in the prime minister’s side looks to be Lapid. Unlike the fiscally conservative Netanyahu, Lapid won support by calling for housing reform, opposing tax increases for the middle class and including haredi yeshiva students in Israel’s mandatory military conscription.
But Netanyahu’s biggest concern may be a rival in his own right-wing camp, Bennett, who appears to have picked up most of the seats lost by Likud-Beiteinu.
While Netanyahu remains ambiguous on the question of a Palestinian state — he formally endorsed the idea in a 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University but has hardly mentioned it since or done much to promote it — Bennett passionately opposes the idea. Instead, Bennett, a former high-tech entrepreneur, calls for annexing much of the West Bank.
Even within Netanyahu’s party, nationalists on the Likud list who never before made it into the Knesset will now occupy seats. Among them is Moshe Feiglin, leader of the Jewish Leadership faction of Likud, who favors West Bank annexation and encouraging Arabs who hold Israeli citizenship to leave Israel.
The rise of Yesh Atid and Jewish Home offer Netanyahu some new opportunities, too. Rather than rely on the haredi Orthodox parties such as Shas and United Torah Judaism for the coalition, Netanyahu could make common cause with Yesh Atid and Jewish Home, both of which want to draft haredi Israelis into the army or some form of national service — even though they may significantly disagree on security matters. Lapid talked during the campaign of his willingness to join a Netanyahu coalition, influencing the government from within rather than from the opposition.
So even though the haredi parties grew by two seats — Shas stayed at 11 seats and United Torah Judaism went from five to seven, according to exit polls — Lapid’s willingness to join Netanyahu’s coalition means that the haredi parties may have lost their political leverage to keep yeshiva students out of Israel’s military draft.
For its part, Labor looks destined to lead the Knesset’s opposition; its chairwoman, Shelly Yachimovich, has vowed not to join a Netanyahu coalition.
The election represented a major defeat for Hatnua head Tzipi Livni, who in the last election led the Kadima party to 28 seats — more than any other party. This time, the eviscerated Kadima scraped by with the minimum two seats.
Hatnua’s poor showing also suggested how little of the election was about negotiations with the Palestinians. Livni made much of the issue during the campaign, but it clearly failed to resonate with voters. Hatnua’s six seats equaled the showing of Meretz, the solidly left-wing party. By contrast, Labor, traditionally a promoter of peace talks, barely raised the issue in the campaign. Instead it focused on socioeconomic issues and made significant Knesset gains.
With Election Day over, the coalition building begins: To win another term as prime minister, Netanyahu now must cobble together an alliance of at least 61 Knesset members to form Israel’s next government.
Netanyahu has a few coalition options before him; almost all of them are problematic. The first scenario — and worst as far as he is concerned — is the formation of a narrow right-wing government including his natural partners: Bennett’s Jewish Home and the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism.
A second scenario is the creation of a right-center-left government (Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Livni’s Hatnua and Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima) excluding the ultra-Orthodox parties.
A coalition of this kind could promote civic issues like an equal share of the burden, civil marriage and allow Lapid, Lieberman and Bennett to further the enlistment of yeshiva students into the Israel Defense Forces.
A coalition without the haredi parties will also punish Shas and, in particular, one of its three leaders, Aryeh Deri, who conducted a harsh campaign against the Likud and Netanyahu.
While sources close to Netanyahu say that he fears forming a coalition without the ultra-Orthodox parties, most analysts say the best and most likely scenario for him is to form a broad government with his natural right-wing partners and the center bloc (see graph).
Who he chooses — and who agrees to join him — will determine a great deal about the course charted in the years to come by the Israeli government.
Yuval Karni of ynetnews.com contributed to this report.