Exit polls aren’t official results but those just released by the Israeli media leave little doubt about the ultimate outcome of today’s elections. Though the last published opinion polls issued last week gave the Labor-led Zionist Union Party with a decisive four-seat edge over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, the exists just released minutes ago show the two leading parties neck and neck. Given that historically these polls tend to undercount the right and don’t include the very significant vote of soldiers on active service in the Israeli Army, which also tends to tilt to the right-wing parties, the likelihood is that the Likud will wind up with a plurality. But even if the two parties wind up tied with either 27 or 28 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, this almost certainly means that Netanyahu will lead the next government of Israel, a result that will be received with dismay in the White House and set off a deluge of hand-wringing columns about Israel’s future from the mainstream liberal press.
If you understand the basics of Israeli politics, the reason why Netanyahu will remain the prime minister is easy to understand. Even if Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union finished first with the expected four-seat margin, he was going to have a difficult time getting a coalition that commanded a majority of the Knesset since they would have had to rely on anti-Zionist Arab votes or Haredi or right-wing parties that are unlikely to want to sit in his Cabinet.
Despite all the talk of this election marking a revolutionary change, the results show a degree of political stasis. The right-wing parties held their own when compared to 2009 and 2013 and the left led by Herzog gained almost nothing. The ultra-Orthodox party kept their share of the vote. Even the Joint Arab list, which now appears to have attained the status of the country’s third largest party only gained two seats over the 11 its three components (Islamists, Communists and radical Arab nationalists) won separately in the previous two elections and will almost certainly split apart again within days of the votes being counted.
Centrist parties did fairly well even though Yesh Atid has gone down from the 19 seats they won last time. Those votes went to Kulanu led by Likud defector Moshe Kahlon. Every election provides a new success and Kulanu is this year’s winner of that role.
But the bottom line is that the electoral math makes it almost impossible for Herzog to form a government. Netanyahu’s natural coalition is there in place even if the negotiations will likely be long and difficult as the various parties barter in the competition for Cabinet posts.
What will also remain unchanged are the tense relations between the White House and the Israeli government. President Obama may have been counting on Netanyahu being defeated but, like it or not, the prime minister will not only get a fourth term but be there after the president leaves office in January 2017.