Centrists' strength a surprise in Israel
TEL AVIV, Israel -- Israelis voted Tuesday in an election that's widely expected to hand Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a third term, but with a coalition far less stable than one he's enjoyed in recent years.
Early exit polls found a bloc of right-wing parties with a very slim majority of 61 or 62 seats in Israel's 120-member Parliament, while moderate forces did better than expected.
The polls released by Israel's three largest television stations showed Netanyahu's right-wing coalition of the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu parties winning 31 seats, followed by the new centrist movement, Yesh Atid, also known as "There Is a Future," with 18 or 19 seats. The left-leaning Labor Party stood in third place with 17.
The staunchly pro-settlement Jewish Home party, which had been projected to take second place in the Parliament, ended up disappointed, with only 12 seats.
Israeli news websites spoke of a "humiliating defeat for Netanyahu," as Israel's Army Radio ran a segment titled "The Demise of Netanyahu."
"The polls we have seen during the elections are way, way off," said Steven Miller, an Israeli pollster and political analyst. "The Likud-Beiteinu is going to get far fewer seats than they wanted. He will be prime minister, but it will be a coalition that is very difficult to control, and it is unlikely to last very long."
Miller said that several Cabinet ministers loyal to Netanyahu were unlikely to return to office, and that tempers would quickly flare within Likud over why it had failed to win the 45 to 48 seats that pollsters had predicted months ago.
"Fingers will be pointed over why the Likud didn't run a more active campaign and address the socioeconomic concerns of voters," said Miller. "That concern is going to ignite what will be an internal struggle in Likud and eventual internal challengers to Likud."
The surprise winners are Yesh Atid, a centrist party founded by television personality Yair Lapid, and the Labor Party, each of which rose in the polls to 17 to 19 seats. Previous polls had them trailing the pro-settler party Habayit Hayehudi, or Jewish Home.