The three major exit polls from Israel’s three major television news outlets all showed the same thing Tuesday night: Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu fell short of being able to cobble together a 61-seat right-wing majority without Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party.
It was the expected outcome, seen in nearly every poll for a month. But Netanyahu has a long history of outperforming expectations, so this preliminary confirmation of the conventional wisdom — taken with a grain of salt — may prove significant.
The most important caveat is also the most obvious one: the only poll that matters is the actual vote count, which won’t be available until well into Wednesday.
What do the exit polls tell us, then? What are Netanyahu’s likely options? What are Blue and White’s Benny Gantz?
First, it’s important to grasp Netanyahu’s failure. The simplest right-wing coalition — Likud, religious-Zionist Yamina (or at least its constituent parts after they broke up an hour after polling stations closed), and Haredi parties Shas and UTJ — together receive 55, 53 or 56 seats in the exit polls by channels 12, 13, and the Kan public broadcaster respectively.
That is, all the exit polls show him several seats short of even the narrowest 61-seat majority. If the numbers bear out, the gap is too great for Netanyahu to try for an easy solution across political lines, such as convincing formerly right-wing lawmaker Orly Levy-Abekasis to abandon lackluster Labor-Gesher in exchange for a significant ministerial post.
The gap is too great to meaningfully change Netanyahu’s predicament even if the extremist Otzma Yehudit defies the polls and squeaks into the Knesset with 4 seats. That scenario wouldn’t hand four seats to the right, as the seat redistribution would also come at the expense of the right. Netanyahu’s best-case scenario is that it boosts his camp by three, an insufficient bump that would cost him dearly, putting him at the political mercy of the radical Kahanists.
No, he’ll need to deliver a real upset, such as convincing Liberman to abandon his bid for kingmaker status and his promise to his voters to be the linchpin of a secular coalition; or breaking up Blue and White and drawing one of its three constituent parties to his banner; or even, after a campaign obsessed with fear-mongering about Arab turnout, finding a way to draw the Joint List, a coalition of the four largest Arab-majority parties, into his coalition.
Don’t laugh: Netanyahu’s closest political adviser and coalition negotiator, Natan Eshel, penned an oped in the left-wing daily Haaretz after the last election urging cooperation between the Israeli right and the Arab Israeli community. “We must join our fate to that of Israel’s Arabs,” he wrote, and urged “full cooperation” and even “a partnership in leading the country.” It was a clear political nod to the Arab parties.
And, to be sure, it is not ideology that stands in Netanyahu’s way when it comes to any of those coalition options, but rather the simple fact that all those parties now have better political options without him.
Liberman has managed to almost double his support by championing the cause of a secular coalition. Why abandon that cause now, on the brink of success, and risk losing all the political benefits it has delivered for him?
Blue and White have stuck it out together this far, and believe themselves now on the cusp of power. Netanyahu can’t offer them more than they’ll soon be able to take for themselves.
As for the Arabs: As their lawmakers made abundantly clear tonight, whatever curious notions Netanyahu may have entertained as he threatened and frightened and deployed cameras to their polling stations, no Arab politician now has any interest in playing his game.
Benny Gantz is also deeply constrained. If he leans one way, toward left or right, secular or religious, he risks losing potential coalition partners on the other side.
For example, a Blue and White-led coalition with the left — Blue and White, Yisrael Beytenu, Labor-Gesher and Democratic Camp — polls several seats below 61. And it assumes hawkish, populist Liberman can sit with progressive Democratic Camp without their sparks destabilizing the coalition.
The situation isn’t much better for Gantz with a right-leaning coalition — Blue and White, Yisrael Beytenu, Yamina and perhaps Labor-Gesher. That would give him seat counts in the mid-50s, worse than Netanyahu’s predicament.
Gantz has more options with the ultra-Orthodox, of course, but it means surrendering his campaign promise of a secular coalition, appearing to betray the secularist voters of his most important political partner, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and of his most recent political backer (Liberman).
And even then, that coalition — Blue and White, Haredi parties, Yamina — will fall several seats short of a coalition and at a steep political cost.
In the end, assuming the polls don’t diverge much from the final vote count, Gantz’s only option is the coalition he has promised in the last two weeks of the campaign — and which Liberman has been pushing since June.
He must seek a unity government with Likud.
Such a coalition of the two biggest parties and Yisrael Beytenu would have an unassailable majority in the Knesset of over 70 seats according to any exit poll.
It would also, of course, be a coalition of two parties vying for primacy in the next race. It would be a house divided against itself, coalition partners who could not help but use their time in power to campaign against each other. It would be an unstable, difficult coalition, held in place by each side’s fear of the voter’s wrath more than anything else.