Update: The exit polls for Israel’s elections started rolling in at around 4:00 PM EST (10:00 PM Israeli time.) The results show an extremely tight race, though it looks like Benjamin Netanyahu did better than expected. Many close observers of the elections are predicting that Netanyahu will eke out a win, and remain Israel’s prime minister. Here’s an average of three of the main exit polls, compiled by Haaretz:
— Haaretz.com (@haaretzcom) March 17, 2015
Original post: Millions of Israelis head to the polls today to elect a new Knesset, which will determine who the next prime minister is. Nobody knows which party will gain the most seats, or which party will have the strength to form a coalition.
It is a toss-up at this point, which is why Netanyahu is turning up his racist appeals.
But the high-level wrangling may not mean much for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza–most of them believe it doesn’t really matter who the next Israeli leader is, and that the occupation will continue to grind on. What the elections will have an impact on is the future of the “peace process,” settlement building, and Israeli economic policy.
The latest polls show the Zionist Union, the joint ticket of Tzipi Livni and the Labor Party’s Issac Herzog, pulling ahead of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party by a few seats. KnessetJeremy.com, a website tracking different Israeli polls, has compiled numbers from 16 polls. The website predicts that the Zionist Union will win 20 Knesset seats, with Netanyahu winning 18. Israeli polls are notoriously unreliable though–so be prepared for election day surprises.
As +972 Magazine’s Noam Sheizaf points out, the election winner will likely not take a radically different approach to the Palestinian question. The conventional wisdom is that the Zionist Union will present a better face to the world and will engage in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. But there is widespread–and justified–skepticism about future peace talks. The Zionist Union’s plan for a Palestinian state, as British journalist Ben White shows, is in keeping with the Labor Party’s long-time position. The party platform says they would annex the “settlement blocs,” major Israeli settlements that impede Palestinian contiguity; keep Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided” capital; and prevent Palestinian refugees from returning to the villages and towns they were driven out of in 1948.
Herzog is not in the perfect place to form the next government, even if his party wins. He may get a first shot at forming a government. His likely coalition is with parties in the center and the Zionist left, like Meretz (if they pass the 3.5% threshold required to win Knesset seats) and Yesh Atid. But his likely partners would only get him to 42 seats, if the polls are to be believed.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, has a much more stable path to a coalition. He would rely on right-wing partners which would get him to 43 seats. But the religious parties are more likely to sit with Netanyahu than Herzog, boosting Netanyahu’s seat total. And then there’s the new party Kulanu–who they pick to side with could be decisive.
If the election is very close, though, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin may ask Netanyahu and Herzog to form a unity government. That’s something Netanyahu is desperately trying to avoid–which is why today, Netanyahu made nakedly racist appeals to Israelis.
“The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are going en masse to the polls. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them on buses,” the prime minister warned. Netanyahu also made waves when he explicitly said that he will never allow a Palestinian state. The Israeli leader has also vowed to increase settlement building if he wins, a clear attempt at influencing the settler vote.