Israel: Can a Party Finish First and Not Win?

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Ariel Schalit / AP

A soldier walks past an election campaign billboard for Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv.

The exit polls may have put centrist Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni ahead of the hawkish former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by a narrow margin (29 seats to 28), but Netanyahu may have good reason to count himself the victor. That's because Tuesday's vote confirmed a sharp swing to the right by Israel's electorate, with exit polls giving a combined right-wing bloc led by Netanyahu gaining 64 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, compared with only 56 for center-left bloc led by Livni. Late last year, Livni failed to form a majority coalition when she took over her party from disgraced Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — a failure that triggered Tuesday's election. And she may not fare any better this time despite her party having finished first, according to exit polls.

Netanyahu, despite his second-place in the head-to-head will nonetheless be able to command a Knesset-majority coalition if Livni fails to tempt some of his allies to back her. (And, of course, the price for Livni winning backing from parties of the right will necessarily restrain her plans to pursue peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.) It will be up to Israel's president, Shimon Peres, to tap Livni or Netanyahu to form a government, based on his consultations with all parties. And, of course, these projections are based on exit polls — and some observers suggest that because those exit polls didn't include the votes of active-duty soldiers, the final result could still put Netanyahu over the top. (See pictures of the recent conflict in Gaza.)

Rather than a comeback for moderation, the fact that Livni finished ahead of the poll-favorite Netanyahu was a function of the electorate's drift to the right: She picked up most of her support at the expense of the Labor Party, the late Yitzhak Rabin's erstwhile "party of peace" that had once ruled unchallenged, but which on Tuesday could only manage a distant fourth place with only 12 Knesset seats, according to the exit polls. And while Livni's strength was a function of Labor voters moving to the right to back Kadima, Netanyahu lost support not to the center, but to the far-right nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party of Avigdor Lieberman, whose third-place finish with 16 seats, according to exit polls, made it the story of the election. The surge in support for his hostile views to Israeli Arabs and for even more hawkish policies towards the Palestinians has made Lieberman the kingmaker, and conventional wisdom suggests that he's more likely to make common cause with the hawkish Netanyahu than with Livni. But nothing is ever certain in an Israeli political system rendered inherently unstable by its proportional-representation formula that has made it almost impossible for any party to win a majority on its own. Whoever is asked to form Israel's next government will do so at the head of a coalition of greater or lesser instability. But instability is unavoidable in Israeli politics.

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