After a nail-biting few months, exit polls are in for the Israeli elections, and right now it looks like Tzipi Livni’s Kadima Party is leading Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party by one or two seats in the 120-seat Knesset. If the numbers hold, it will be a stunning upset for Netanyahu, the frontrunner throughout the campaign.
Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, with its message of “no citizenship without loyalty” comes in third (which leaves the once-establishment Labor Party a distant fourth). Yet Lieberman did not do as well as some polls in the lead up to the elections had predicted. With a relatively high turnout, especially with winter rains, voters appear to have rejected two former prime ministers, Netanyahu and Barak, in favor of Livni at the last moment.
Preliminary results may take several days to tally in full, as the votes of soldiers and diplomats must still be counted, and will not be certified until next week. After that, President Shimon Peres will hear from all the parties about who to nominate for prime minister. That person will have 26 days plus a possible 18-day extension to form a coalition. If no coalition is formed, Peres can then ask another candidate to try.
Israeli coalition building is always full of public posturing and private deal-making and Livni has already tried and failed to form a coalition after being elected chairwoman of Kadima in September. If the polls are right and if she is given the task, it remains to be seen what will she be able to do with a political landscape that has a majority (63 or 64) of mandates for right-wing parties.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu has started to wage his own campaign to be prime minister despite coming in second in the exit polls.
Although the first nail-biting phase has come to an end, the final outcomes of these elections and the outlines of a new coalition will take a while to shake out.