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Analysis: Uncertainty Is Clearest Outcome in Israeli Election

After focusing on Tzipi Livni and Benjamin Netanyahu, attention will shift to see who President Peres selects to form Israel's next government. A one-seat electoral difference had both parties claiming a mandate.


Israelis will likely face weeks of political haggling after Tuesday's election didn't see a clear winner

The only certainty to emerge from initial results in Tuesday's Israeli election is that nothing is certain. The centrist Kadima party of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni received a sparse, one-seat lead over the hard-line Likud of former premier Benjamin Netanyahu.

That's a gap small enough to allow both Livni and Netanyahu to claim victory.

More important, though, is who will be entrusted with the task of forming a new government once President Shimon Peres completes his consultations with leaders of the parties that make it into the Knesset.

By law, the president can ask anyone to form a government, but in practice, the nod has been given to the candidate with the best chance of forming a coalition, which is traditionally but not automatically the leader of the largest party.

Advantage: Netanyahu

Since the right-wing bloc, which the Likud heads, had a clear majority of mandates -- 65 in the 120-seat Knesset -- Netanyahu has the best chance of forming a coalition.

Benjamin Netanyahu

Analysts expected Netanyahu to be in the best position after the election

Banking on the support of the right-wing parties in the Knesset, Netanyahu already proclaimed Tuesday night that he would be the next prime minister, but Livni was reportedly counting on a public outcry if, should Kadima win the most seats, she were denied the first chance to form a coalition.

Even if she is chosen over Netanyahu, Livni might find it difficult to form a coalition. Netanyahu may well refuse to negotiate with her, knowing that without Likud she would struggle to stitch together a stable government.

If she is unable to form a coalition in the allotted time, Peres can then call on Netanyahu to try to set up a government.

Such a scenario is not without precedent in Israel.

In 1984, though the Labour Party won a narrow, three-seat victory over the Likud, it was unable to form a government. Likud, which was then asked to try, was equally unsuccessful. The final result, after weeks of governmental paralysis, was a national unity government where Labour leader Shimon Peres and Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir rotated the premiership, each serving for two years.

Tzipi Livni

The people have chosen Kadima, Livni said

Nobody was talking about rotation on Tuesday night, and until the final results come in they were perhaps hoping they wouldn't have to. Official results in Israel have a habit of making victory parties seem premature.

The most famous instance occurred in the 1996 prime ministerial elections, when Israelis went to bed with exit polls showing Labour Party leader Peres holding a narrow lead over Likud's Netanyahu, only to awake the next morning to find that according to the actual results, Netanyahu was on his way to the prime minister's office.

Ultra-nationalist kingmaker

That, however, was a direct election for prime minister. Tuesday's poll in Israel was a parliamentary election, with the premiership going to the candidate best able to form a coalition.

The key here is the hard-line, nationalist Israel Beiteinu party, projected to become the third-largest faction in parliament. Party leader Avigdor Lieberman said in his post-election speech to supporters that he preferred sitting in a "nationalist, right-wing government," pointing him clearly toward Netanyahu.

Whether Netanyahu would prefer to head a narrow coalition, comprising smaller parties who could threaten coalition stability if their demands are not met, is another issue.

"One thing is clear," analyst Ben Caspit wrote in Ma'ariv on Tuesday. "Either the winner today forms a genuine national unity government tomorrow ... or things are going to be very bad."

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