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Netanyahu a Victim of His Own Success

The nationalist camp assumed the Likud would win, and voted for smaller parties. Will the bloc's win be enough to give Netanyahu the nod?
By Hillel Fendel
First Publish: 2/11/2009, 7:46 AM

With the apparent near-tie between Likud and Kadima, all eyes are now turned to the three venues in which the final determination of the elections will be decided: The soldiers’ votes, the preliminary negotiations among the parties, and President Shimon Peres.

Though Kadima has apparently won 28 seats, compared to the Likud’s 27, past experience shows that this is likely to change after the votes of soldiers, diplomats, hospital patients and those who are ship-bound are counted.  These votes, placed in double-envelopes, must be hand-compared with national lists to ensure that the voters did not vote twice.

In the last elections, in 2006, six seats changed hands after the final count, giving Likud, Meretz and Kadima an extra seat, and subtracting one each from Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), and Labor.  In 2003, the Likud and the National Religious Party gained a seat each, at the expense of an Arab party and the now-defunct Am Echad party.  It can thus be assumed that the current totals are not the final results. 

One result that is not expected to change, however, is the clear majority of the nationalist/religious camp over the left-wing sector.  The former won a clear victory with 65 Knesset mandates, compared to only 55 for Kadima-Labor-Meretz and the Arab parties. 

This fact gives Likud Chairman Binyamin Netanyahu a clear edge over Kadima leader Tzipi Livni in his ability to form a government.  President Peres, who is entrusted with the task of choosing a Knesset candidate to form a government, is to meet in the coming days with the leaders of all the parties that will be part of the next Knesset, and will hear their recommendations. 

Although he is a former member of both Labor and Kadima, Peres is expected to realize that Livni has slim chances of actually forming a viable coalition to rule the country.  She can do so only as head of a “national unity government” with the Likud and Labor, an unlikely scenario, or if both Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party and Labor agree to join Kadima – similarly unlikely.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, has the straightforward option of forming a coalition with Lieberman, Shas, United Torah Judaism, the National Union and the Jewish Home, for a total of 65 seats.  In addition, from this position of power, he can also offer Kadima the option of joining his own “national unity government.”

For many weeks prior to the elections, the Likud had been expected to receive some 35 Knesset seats – and it is likely that this then caused the drop in the Likud’s support.  Netanyahu explained repeatedly over the past several days that he seemed to be a victim of his own success in the polls: “Everyone is sure that I will win, so they’re choosing to vote for smaller parties that will ‘strengthen’ Netanyahu.”  He said that nationalist-camp voters must vote for the Likud, in order to enable the Likud to form a strong, stable government.

Many nationalist camp voters did not heed this call, however, for several reasons. For one thing, they were confident that the Likud would win, and feared that if parties such as the Jewish Home did not receive the minimum amount of votes needed to enter the Knesset – 2%, equivalent to 3 Knesset seats – then these mandates would be lost to the nationalist camp and to the Likud’s ability to “form a strong, stable government.”

In addition, some simply felt that Netanyahu could simply not be trusted, recalling his support for the Disengagement from Gush Katif and northern Shomron.

Whether Peres chooses Netanyahu or Livni, only once before in Israeli history has a smaller party formed a government - and it lasted only 18 months. It occurred in 1999 when Ehud Barak turned Labor into the One Israel party and led it to the nation’s smallest victory count ever - 26 seats.  His coalition government fell apart in December 2000 and he was forced to call new elections after only a year and a half in office.

A third coalition option could be a Likud-Kadima government, with other parties joining in, and with Netanyahu and Livni sharing the Prime Minister’s chair in a rotation agreement.  Such an arrangement was implemented in the 1980’s between the Likud’s Yitzchak Shamir and Labor’s Peres, but is not expected to be a viable option this time.