In a jubilant speech before Likud supporters Tuesday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared election victory and intimated that a unity government with the Zionist Union was not in the offing.
“Against all odds, we achieved a great victory for Likud. We achieved a great victory for our people,” he told Likud members and activists at the Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv late Tuesday.
“I’m proud of the people of Israel, that in the moment of truth they knew how to separate the important from the trivial, and to stand for what’s important, for a real defense, a responsible economy, and a socially conscious economy that we’re committed to…. I can tell you with confidence that we stand before diplomatic and defense challenges, and economic and social challenges. We promised to act on the cost of housing, and we’re going to do it,” he said.
Netanyahu also hinted at a rejection of any proposed unity government with the Zionist Union.
When a tie is a victory
The last polls before the elections predicted a four-point lead for the Zionist Union, and Netanyahu’s constant warning that the Likud and the national camp as a whole were in real danger of losing the elections had lowered the expectations so much that the results of the exit polls — which announced a tie — were seen as a huge victory.
Many no longer feared a crushing defeat, after Netanyahu’s formidable effort to regain the trust of right-wing voters by disavowing his support for Palestinian statehood and espousing other hawkish views. Still, many Likudniks were nervous about losing the elections, or at least not winning it.
Judging by the celebrations that erupted in the hall as soon as it emerged that Netanyahu was actually set to remain prime minister, activists were celebrating as if their party had won a decisive victory. In the last elections in 2013, Likud and Yisrael Beytenu won by a much larger margin and it was certain that Netanyahu would survive another term in office. And yet, the mood in the hall was much more subdued than it was this time around night.
Likud activists had expected much worse and their huge relief was apparent. Tuesday’s event had the feel of a wedding. Thousands of white Likud voting slips were spread across the floor. Activists hugged and congratulated each other to the sound of loud Israeli pop songs, including “You’re the bomb,” with which Israeli singer Sarit Hadad once famously serenaded Netanyahu at a campaign event.
Assuming the 10 p.m. TV exit polls prove broadly accurate — and they were being adjusted overnight to incorporate genuine results as the actual vote count proceeds — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can reasonably contemplate another term in office, albeit with a fractious coalition, having dragged himself from the jaws of defeat in the final days of a difficult campaign.
With 10 or 11 parties in the new Knesset, and the arithmetic still fluctuating and sensitive, there are coalition constellations that could deprive him of another stint as prime minister, but they require extremely implausible alliances of ideologically disparate parties behind the leadership of Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog. It may take some time to assemble, but the overwhelming likelihood is that the next coalition will be led by Netanyahu and Likud — comprised of right-wing and Orthodox parties — and that represents a remarkable turnaround. A victory “against the odds,” as he called it in his victory speech.
Opinion surveys last week showed Netanyahu’s Likud trailing Herzog’s Zionist Union by four seats, with the momentum running firmly in Herzog’s favor. Long Israel’s peerless political operator, Netanyahu reversed that momentum, while Herzog failed to put up a sufficiently effective fight. Zionist Union’s showing may have been the best for Labor since 1992, but it does not appear to have been strong enough to stop Netanyahu’s late surge.
What Tuesday’s exit polls indicated, however, was that his narrow, urgent, domestic electoral cause was well served. Worried, increasingly hardline Netanyahu lifted Likud from four seats behind Herzog’s National Union last Thursday to close that gap by Tuesday night. Those extra seats came overwhelmingly from other right-wing parties, whose voters were evidently moved by the prime minister’s repeated plea: “Vote for my party, Likud.”