The Israeli Election Day Shocker

03/18/2015 03:08 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2015
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One can almost hear the pens screeching to a halt as most analysts and pundits were readying their political obituaries for Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The last polls published Friday in Israel gave the Israeli leader 20 seats with his opponent, Isaac Herzog of the Labor-Livni Zionist Union coalition at 24 seats. It takes a 61-seat majority to govern the 120-seat Israeli parliament known as the Knesset. Whichever party wins the most seats on election night is usually given first crack at hobbling together a coalition to reach the magic number of 61. It looked like the Zionist Union was going to pull it off; the question was by how many seats?

Then came the Election Day shocker as the first exit polls were published. Two of three polls had Likud and Zionist Union neck-and-neck at 27 seats each. The third had Netanyahu ahead by one. Barring any abnormalities, if the numbers held, Netanyahu was sure to win re-election. Nevertheless, media outlets across the world continued to report that the race was too close to call. It wasn't. In the early morning hours with some 90 percent of the votes counted, even those clinging to the belief that Herzog's party was somehow going to rebound were at a loss -- literally. It turned out that Netanyahu's lead increased to 30 seats while Herzog's table had more elbow room, having shrunk to 24 seats.

The last polls on Friday were mainly wrong about one thing: They underestimated Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu. As a center-right party, Likud was always better positioned to form a coalition because there are more small parties to the right of Likud. Conventional wisdom was that the most important number to watch was the gap between Herzog and Netanyahu's seats as the former had a 3-4 seat lead in the polls. If Herzog won by five or more seats, he would unquestionably be given the chance to form a coalition first. If he won by 3-4 seats it would be a toss-up. If Herzog only tied or won by two seats, Netanyahu would have the far easier path to build a coalition. All of those considerations were blown away by Netanyahu's expanding lead to six over Herzog and close to 10 over Friday's predictions.

The old rule in politics is to go to where the votes are and in the closing days, the remaining votes for Netanyahu were not undecided. After all, the Prime Minister is a known quantity in Israel. The votes he attracted were siphoned away from the smaller coalition parties to Likud's right. Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home party underperformed, losing four seats from Friday's prediction and the Yachad party failed to reach the threshold to make it into the Knesset, surrendering another four seats. Likud managed to increase its margin by drawing Israelis from the right toward the center.

The end of election night marks the beginning of the horse-trading to form a coalition with other parties. It turns out that the kingmaker may well be Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu party. Kahlon was a longtime member of Likud and the former Minister of Communication. He is credited with bringing down Israel's cell phone monopoly and drastically reducing prices. His party -- which includes Netanyahu's former ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren -- ran on middle class issues. Apparently, he recognized something important that other parties forgot, namely, that voters cared more about socioeconomic issues in the election than they did about security and foreign policy by a 2-1 margin. Netanyahu made a mistake by alienating many Sephardic Jews in Likud -- a segment of Israeli society that formed a basis for the party's rise in the late 1970s. Kahlon -- also a Sephardi -- split from Likud and focused on the socioeconomic issues that were important to this segment of the population. The question remains, will his Kulanu party bury the hatchet and join Netanyahu in a coalition close to his political roots? The Prime Minister already sweetened the pot by offering Kahlon the Minister of Finance position.

Another takeaway from the election was the performance of the Joint Arab List -- a collection of three Arab Israeli parties that usually pull in between 3-4 seats each. They combined to reach 13 seats together, making them the third largest block. However, one of the parties is Islamist in nature, one is communist, and the other is secular nationalist. It is difficult to see how unified they could remain going forward. Nevertheless, the fact that they united to do so well in the elections is something that should make their Arab brethren in the war-torn region rather jealous. It also puts a wet shoe in the horns of those trumpeting how Israel is supposedly an apartheid state.

Herzog's Zionist Union just might need the Joint Arab List's support to stand a chance at forming a coalition. The irony there, however, would be rather rich: A group named Zionist Union seeking the inclusion of three Arab parties diametrically opposed to the Zionist project. There would also be the question of such a coalition's durability. It's hard to imagine the Joint List choosing to remain in the coalition the next time Hamas grows trigger-happy in Gaza.

Herzog's other option would be courting the right-wing religious parties that have been a part of Netanyahu's government. But that would likely prove to be wishful thinking as Herzog still needs to keep the Yesh Atid party, who made a big issue of doing away with the law allowing the religious right to defer or skip otherwise compulsory military service. They'd hardly fit together like two peas in a pod.

Then there is the question of how a Netanyahu-led government would fare compared to a Herzog-led coalition in the relationship with the White House. After all, it is hard to paper over the clear animosity between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. But this is a political difference at the surface. The real problem is over policy issues such as Iran and the viability of another push for Palestinian-Israeli peace. The two read the region very differently. But then, so do the majority of Israelis. According to an early February survey by The Times of Israel, Israelis have an increasingly negative perception of Obama, and decreasing faith in his ability to prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon. An overwhelming 72 percent of likely Israeli voters do not trust the U.S. president to ensure that Iran does not get the bomb, and they give Obama a 33 percent favorable and 59 percent unfavorable rating.

No doubt Obama would rejoice in Netanyahu's defeat. But if Zionist Union won, Herzog has promised the Defense Minister position to Amos Yadlin, a former intelligence chief. Yadlin literally blew up Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981 as a pilot in that daring raid; in 2007 he was the head of the Military Intelligence Directorate when Israel destroyed Syria's nuclear plant-in-the-making. He wears no rose-tinted glasses when it comes to Iran's quest for a nuclear weapon, nor does he believe that Palestinian leaders are on the cusp of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state and that they are interested in pursuing statehood at the negotiating table. There are few differences between the stated positions of Herzog and Netanyahu when it comes to Israel's security.

The clearest path to the next ruling coalition appears to run through Likud and Netanyahu. If Netanyahu serves out this next term as prime minister, he will become the longest-serving Israeli leader since Ben Gurion -- Israel's founding prime minister. His path to create a new coalition will need to include the vast majority of those parties that previously served with him. In the end, the question begs to be asked: Besides all of the drama created by dissolving the Knesset and calling for early elections, what was the point if it more or less leads to the same political situation as before?

Matthew RJ Brodsky is a Senior Middle East Analyst at Wikistrat and former Director of Policy at the Jewish Policy Center in Washington, DC. He can be followed on Twitter: @RJBrodsky