After divisive campaign, Israelis render a split verdict

Ben Sales

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Zionist Union's Isaac Herzog emerged in a virtual dead heat after Israeli elections Tuesday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog emerged in a virtual dead heat after Israeli elections on March 17, 2015.

TEL AVIV (JTA) — After weeks in which polls consistently showed Zionist Union holding a slight lead over the Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israelis delivered a split decision in elections Tuesday, leaving the top two parties virtually tied in exit polls.

Exit polls from two Israeli broadcasters, Channel 2 and Channel 10, gave the two parties 27 seats each. A third poll, from Channel 1, gave Likud a slight edge, with 28 seats.

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Early analyses gave Netanyahu the easier path to building a governing coalition and thus retaining the premiership for a third consecutive term, but the vote did not render a conclusive verdict on the current government.

Nor did it bring a clear call for change, as Netanyahu’s principal challenger, Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog, had called on the electorate to deliver. Neither the right- nor left-wing bloc won an outright majority of the Knesset.

The result provides an inconclusive finish to a fierce and largely negative campaign in which both Netanyahu and Herzog campaigned with variations on the slogan, It’s Us or Them.

“After the quarrels and disagreements, I am convinced that only a unity government can prevent the quick breakup of Israeli democracy and new elections soon,” said President Reuven Rivlin, according to sources quoted by Haaretz.

Exit polling placed the Arab-Israeli Joint List in third place and made the party, a combined slate of several smaller Arab factions, one of the election’s biggest winners. With 13 seats, the Joint List picked up 2 seats from its current Knesset representation, driven by elevated turnout among Arab-Israelis.

Ayman Odeh, the party’s charismatic leader, has committed himself to work on improving the lives of Arab Israelis, but has vowed not to join a coalition led by either Likud or Zionist Union.

Throughout the campaign, voters said their top issue was Israel’s high cost of living. They reiterated that demand Tuesday, giving the new centrist Kulanu party a strong showing with 10 seats, according to two polls. Party founder Moshe Kachlon, a former Likud minister, had focused almost exclusively on socioeconomic issues during the campaign.

The other party with a strong economic focus, the centrist Yesh Atid, fell from 19 to 12 seats, according to two polls. But the combined strength of Kulanu and Yesh Atid makes for a large bloc committed to economic reform.

Kulanu may well emerge as the election’s kingmaker. As the largest party not committed to either Zionist Union or Likud, its support could be critical to the formation of the next government.

If Netanyahu can convince Kulanu to back him, he would be able to form a coalition with other right-wing parties and the religious parties. For Herzog to emerge as the prime minister, he would have to convince religious, secular and leftist parties to unite under him in order to form a majority.

As Election Day drew near, leaders on both sides urged voters to close ranks around their respective flagship party. Voters moved away from smaller parties, enabling both Likud and Zionist Union to outperform their recent poll standings, with Likud succeeding in closing a deficit of several points in the campaign’s final days.

On the left, the staunchly leftist Meretz fell from six seats to five, while the right-wing Yachad party, founded by the former Shas chairman Eli Yishai, did not pass the electoral threshold and will not enter the next Knesset, according to exit polls.

One of the biggest losers was Israel Beiteinu, the hardline faction led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. The party, which had 13 seats in the previous Knesset, was hit with a corruption scandal early in the campaign and wound up with just five seats.