Netanyahu Faces Challenge Forming Coalition But Some Media Misinterpreting the Results And Check Out These Interesting Voting Factoids

Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu react as results come into campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv. Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images.

With 99% of the 3.6 million votes officially counted, it appeared Wednesday morning that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be tapped to form the next coalition government and thus enter his third term as the nation’s leader.

Exit polls reported by Israeli media Tuesday night were almost identical to the official results which are: Netanyahu’s Likud-Israel Beitenu 31, Yesh Atid headed by Yair Lapid 19, Labor 15, Shas 11, Jewish Home 11, United Torah Judaism 7, Hatnua 6, Meretz 6, Ra’am Ta’al 5, Hadash 4, Balad 3 and Kadima 2.

Netanyahu will have 28 days to form a coalition, with a possible two week extension if he needs more time.

After the exit polls were announced, Netanyahu told his supporters he wants to “join hands” with as many coalition partners as he can cobble together. “We have to build the widest possible government,” he said, adding, “And I have already began that work this evening.”

That won’t be easy considering each party will likely present Netanyahu a menu of demands in exchange for joining his government. In addition to Likud-Israel Beiteinu’s 31 seats, Netanyahu will need to find another 30 Knesset members for a minimum of 50%+1 to support his administration.

The big surprise of the evening was Yair Lapid who heads the new Yesh Atid (“There is a future”) party, now the second largest party in Israel.  He told a rally of his supporters, “A heavy responsibility has fallen on our shoulders today,” adding that: “Israel faces difficult challenges.” Echoing Netanyahu, he also said he wants to see a wide coalition.

Lapid talked about universal military service, the cornerstone of his campaign for which he received wide support from Israelis fed up with ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students’ exemption from service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

“The citizens of Israel have said ‘no’ today to the politics of fear and hate,” Lapid said late Tuesday night.

Considering Lapid’s large win of 19 Knesset seats, Netanyahu could conceivably exclude the ultra-Orthodox parties from his coalition which in the past provided him key support. This would allow him the maneuverability to enact a universal draft law, which the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism vehemently oppose.

They also oppose a cut in the monthly stipend yeshiva (seminary) students receive. According to Israel Hayom, 54,000 such students receive a monthly handout of $1,200 “to any 28-year-old yeshiva student with three or four children whose wife either did not work or received an undeclared salary. For a yeshiva student of this age with a working wife, the state paid 4,100 shekels ($1,098) monthly.”

In addition, they get between $300 and $455 in housing assistance.

This is “Obama phone” plus so much more. Not surprisingly, it has elicited the resentment of a large swath of Israelis, who came out in droves to vote for Lapid’s new party.

This rejection of the unequal status quo seems to be the main theme behind Israeli voter choice. But many reports in the mainstream media are interpreting the vote as a rejection of Netanyahu’s hardline approach to the peace process with the Palestinians. Here are just a few of the misconceptions being reported:

MISCONCEPTION #1: Did the Israeli voter reject Netanyahu’s position on the peace process?

In its article, “Israeli election ends in dramatic deadlock” AP reported [emphasis added]:

Yesh Atid’s leader, Yair Lapid, has said he would only join a government committed to sweeping economic changes and a serious push to resume peace talks with the Palestinians, which have languished throughout Netanyahu’s four-year tenure.

But if you look at the Lapid party platform, nowhere do the words “peace,” “process,” or even “Palestinians” appear. He campaigned almost exclusively on domestic issues, including the high cost of living and military service burden sharing.

In fact, Lapid’s past statements suggest he may be a security hawk in the same vein as Netanyahu. On Sunday, Lapid said he has no expectations of negotiations with the Arabs. He wrote on his Facebook page, “I do not think that the Arabs want peace.”

“What I want is not a new Middle East, but to be rid of them and put a tall fence between us and them,” he wrote, adding, it’s of utmost importance “to maintain a Jewish majority in the Land of Israel.” He also insists Jerusalem never again be divided.

MISCONCEPTION #2: Did the Israeli electorate move radically to the right?

In the days leading up to the elections, publications including most notably the New Yorker warned that Israeli voters were poised to move the country radically to the right.

That prediction was belied by the results which showed foreign policy did not take a front seat in this election. A little more than a year after the social protests demanding a drop in the cost of living, it was the economy that seems to have guided voter choice.

In an article published last week before Election Day titled: “The Party Faithful: The settlers move to annex the West Bank—and Israeli politics,” David Remnick wrote:

More broadly, the story of the election is the implosion of the center-left and the vivid and growing strength of the radical right. What [Jewish Home Party’s Naftali] Bennett’s rise, in particular, represents is the attempt of the settlers to cement the occupation and to establish themselves as a vanguard party, the ideological and spiritual core of the entire country.

Remnick quoted the liberal Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit who wrote, “What is now happening is impossible to view as anything but the takeover by a colonial province of its mother country.”

Eric Trager, a Mideast scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, dispelled that model, tweeting after exit polls were announced: “Rough day for the ‘Israel is moving to the far right’ and ‘religious fundamentalism is growing everywhere in the Middle East’ paradigms.”

MISCONCEPTION #3: Is the Israeli political map evenly divided?

Another misconception being reported in the media is that the right vs. left wing blocks are equally divided, in AP’s words “a stunning deadlock.” The Israeli media are also presenting that model, which TheBlaze quoted Tuesday.

However, the pie is divided equally (60 vs. 60) only if you buy into the notion that Yesh Atid – with one-sixth of the Knesset seats is truly left-wing. And that’s not at all clear.

For example, party leader Yair Lapid’s pessimistic statements above about the peace process suggest otherwise.

And early Wednesday morning, the number two politician on the Yesh Atid list, Rabbi Shay Piron, ruled out joining forces with the left-wing Labor Party to try to block Netanyahu from forming a government. He told Army Radio: “The results are clear.”

“There is a democratic process in Israel,” he added, suggesting that the fact that Netanyahu’s party got 31 seats, far more than any other party, should dictate who forms the next government.

Some other interesting factoids that emerged from the election results:

*Number 17 on the list of Yesh Atid, the second largest party, was born in America. Rabbi Dov Lipman is from Baltimore, a Torah scholar and Johns Hopkins University graduate who was at the forefront of battling religious extremism in his town outside Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh.

*Though it’s a fiercely debated topic in the U.S., Israel requires photo IDs to be shown at the polling station. For weeks before Election Day, public service announcements ran on television reminding voters to bring their ID cards, driver’s licenses or passports to the polling station.

*The voting process is low-tech but apparently efficient. Israelis choose a paper ballot with the name of their party and its assigned acronym, place it in an envelope and then drop it in a box.

*Almost half of the Knesset’s incumbent lawmakers were voted out.

To this, Channel 2’s Political Correspondent Amit Segal tweeted: “Whoever doesn’t keep his word won’t last.”

Though it is a public that’s not universally fond of President Obama, it looks like Israelis adopted his mantra and voted for hope and change.