Opinion Polls

BICOM Briefing: Israeli election night exit polls

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Key Points

  • Exit polls indicate a surprise two seat lead for centrist Kadima over Likud; Yisrael Beitenu overtakes Labour but with smaller vote than expected
  • President Peres will hold consultations with party leaders before inviting a candidate to attempt to form the new coalition
  • Results leave coalition options wide open. The first deadline for forming a government is likely to be around 19 March

 

Exit Polls

Israel Channel 1:

Kadima 30

Likud 28

Yisrael Beitenu 14

Labour 13

Shas 9

Meretz 5

United Torah Judaism 5

National Union 3

Jewish Home 4

Hadash 4

Balad 3

Ra’am Tal 3

Israel Channel 2:

Kadima 29

Likud 27

Yisrael Beitenu 15

Labour 13

Shas 10

Meretz 4

United Torah Judaism 5

National Union 3

Jewish Home 4

Hadash 4

Balad 3

Ra’am Tal 3

Israel Channel 10:

Kadima 30

Likud 28

Yisrael Beitenu 15

Labour 13

Shas 9

Meretz 4

United Torah Judaism 5

National Union 3

Jewish Home 3

Hadash 4

Balad 2

Ra’am Tal 4

 

Close result suggests long road ahead

Exit polls indicate a small lead for centrist Kadima over Likud in a tight finish to Israel’s general election. Despite poor weather, the close nature of the race appears to have prompted a higher than expected turnout. In all three exit polls, Kadima has a two seat lead over Likud. Yisrael Beitenu, led by the hawkish Avigdor Lieberman, has overtaken Labour, but his surge of support is less than expected. It appears that Tzipi Livni’s more hopeful message, including a clear statement of her commitment to the peace process in the final week of the campaign, pulled her ahead of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud.

Election night predictions have a very chequered history in Israeli politics and have proved wrong in the past, so an accurate reading of the balance of power in the new Knesset will not be known for at least several more hours. Once the results are made official, probably on Thursday, President Shimon Peres will begin consultations with the leaders of the elected parties on whom he should ask to form a coalition. He has seven days from the publication of the official results to choose a candidate. Despite Kadima’s apparent lead over Likud, the right-of-centre parties still have a numerical advantage over the Left, so both Livni and Netanyahu will attempt to claim the right to a shot at forming a coalition. The next largest parties, Labour and Yisrael Beitenu, will have considerable influence over the president’s decision. Though on the face of it Labour is ideologically closer to Kadima, and Yisrael Beitenu to Likud, the ideological distinctions are not sharply defined, and both parties have been careful in the course of the campaign to suggest that they could support either, thus placing themselves in the strongest possible negotiating position.

Once the president has invited a candidate to try to form a coalition, probably around 19 February, that person will have an initial period of four weeks, followed by a possible extension of two weeks, to complete the task, which could take the process up to 2 April. In the unlikely event that a coalition is not formed, the president can invite someone else to try. Each party will use every inch of political leverage at their disposal to reach the best possible deal in terms of ministerial positions and policy commitments before agreeing to enter the government. Though both Livni and Netanyahu will try to claim a victory of sorts tonight, there will be a long road ahead before either can sit in the prime minister’s chair.

The coalition options

The relative lack of clear distinctions in the policy platforms of the parties makes a wide range of coalition options possible. Broadly speaking, there are three options for building the next coalition. Given the increased strength of the right-leaning parties Likud and Yisrael Beitenu, the least likely is a centre-left coalition similar to the previous government which would be based on the shared diplomatic agenda of Kadima and Labour. The potential coalition partners needed to make up the numbers – any combination of Shas, Yisrael Beitenu and Meretz – would be unlikely to sit comfortably with one another. However, Labour, Kadima, Yisrael Beitenu and Shas did sit together in a coalition for nearly 14 months in the last parliament, so such an arrangement is not impossible.

More likely is some kind of centrist coalition, which would be based on either Likud or Kadima joining with Labour and Yisrael Beitenu, in addition to other smaller religious parties. Netanyahu repeatedly stated during the campaign that a broad national unity government was his preference, and it is the option that has the most support among the electorate. What now seems a more complicated option is that Kadima, Likud and Labour will all sit together. Netanyahu will not be keen to serve as number two in a centrist government with Kadima, if he has a chance to lead a right-wing bloc.  There has been speculation in the run-up to the vote that Likud and Labour might try to form a government without Kadima, in a deliberate attempt to bring about the collapse of the centrist party, which is in both their interests. Given’s Kadima success in this election, this will now be harder to achieve.

A third option is that Netanyahu forms a right-wing coalition based on Likud and Yisrael Beitenu, which does not include Kadima or Labour. He could garner enough support from the smaller religious parties to form a government, but it is probably not his preference. Forming such a government would mean having to grant concessions to the narrow interests of at least two or three of the smaller parties. Such a government would be unlikely to be popular domestically, and would be on a collision course with the new Obama administration, which is enthusiastic to see diplomatic progress in the Arab-Israeli arena. It would also be a coalition troubled by internal division, as the agenda of the staunchly secular Yisrael Beitenu runs contrary to that of the religious parties. Shas in particular have fiercely attacked Lieberman in the course of the campaign.

Why did Israelis vote the way they did?

In private discussions, campaign managers from across the spectrum agreed that they had never seen an election like this one. In the week before the vote, polls were indicating that up to 30% of the electorate were still undecided, an extraordinary statistic. The indecision of the electorate reflects the lack of clear policy options presented to Israelis with regard to the central challenges the country faces. With the Palestinians divided, the decision in Israel over whether and how to advance the diplomatic process is not clear-cut, and the parties campaigned more on the personal strengths of their respective leaders than on their policies. However, none of the leaders of the major parties – Livni, Netanyahu or Barak – was able to gain momentum in the course of a campaign to carry a decisive victory.  The lengthy interruption to the campaign caused by Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip also contributed to the lack of energy in the election. Even the local elections held in November seemed to have more verve. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, Livni’s more hopeful message in the final stages of the campaign seems to have given her an edge among the undecided voters, keen for a fresh candidate to lead the country.

The conflict in Gaza is one of the factors that helped Yisrael Beitenu make progress in the campaign and challenge Labour for third place. Lieberman comes with an eclectic collection of views and policies which make him difficult to pigeonhole, but it was his strongly hawkish rhetoric and his attacks on the loyalty of some Israeli Arab Knesset members which allowed him to expand his support beyond his Russian immigrant base. Certain sections of the electorate, unimpressed with the performance of the more mainstream parties and their leaders, and forced to focus on security issues by the conflict in Gaza, found an alternative in Lieberman.

New faces

Whilst this has not been the most vibrant of election campaigns, it has renewed a sense of civic duty among a number of public figures in Israel. Based on the exit poll results, the next Knesset will see the introduction of some new high-profile faces, as well as the return of some veteran politicians who had previously left politics. Danny Ben-Simon, a respected journalist on social issues, will enter as a Knesset member for Labour. Another journalist and former IDF spokesman, Nachman Shai, enters on the Kadima list, along with head of the Jewish Agency, Ze’ev Bielski. On the Likud list, former finance minister Dan Meridor, regarded as a centrist, will make a return alongside another former minister, Benny Begin, and ex-IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon, who is entering the Knesset for the first time. But among those absent from the Knesset will be veteran left-winger Yossi Beilin, who stepped down before the election, and former Labour minister Ephraim Sneh, whose breakaway ‘Strong Israel’ party appears not to have reached the 2% threshold. And, of course, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will call timeout on a Knesset career dating back to 1973, though a future return cannot be ruled out. He will continue to serve as interim prime minister until the new coalition is voted in by the Knesset.