The normally very accurate Israeli exit polls show Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud Beytenu party (a combination of the old Likud with Avigdor Lieberman’s hard-right Yisrael Beiteinu grouping) winning the largest number of seats in today’s election, as was universally expected. But Bibi’s party unexpectedly lost eleven seats in the Knesset, and right-wing parties generally appear likely to hold a narrow 61-59 margin overall.
While the right-wing settler party Bayit Yehudi’s leader Naftali Bennett was widely expected to be the “rising star” heralded by the results, that distinction instead goes to Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid, which picked up 19 seats to finish second. And indeed, Bibi must now choose whether to form a right-wing or a center-right governing coalition. It’s worth noting that among Atid’s demands for participating in a government is the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians and a restriction of privileges for the ultra-Orthodox.
It’s too early to predict which way Netanyahu will decide to move, or what it might mean for Israeli policies affecting the Middle East. But whatever he does, he may have to express some rare humility after a very underwhelming electoral performance.