The 20th Israeli legislative elections took place on March 17 amid great anticipation and under the close, careful watch of observers throughout the world. The victory of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party has far-reaching implications not only for the nation itself, but for stability throughout the entire Middle East. It will also likely affect the Jewish State’s future relations with U.S. President Barack Obama and the United States generally.

Understanding the Knesset

The Israeli government is structured based on the concept of proportional representation. In contrast to the American “winner-take-all” system, in which a victory by even a single direct or electoral vote results in a particular candidate’s victory, in Israel, every party receives a percentage of the 120 seats in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) corresponding to the percentage of cast votes it received. In advance of the election, parties publish lists of the people whom they would send to represent them in the Knesset, in descending order of priority. And thus, for example, if a party wins 10 seats, the first 10 names on the list receive seats in the Knesset.

In principle, the Knesset is elected to a term of four years. Quite often, however, such as this past autumn, the Knesset dissolves itself by vote or by order of the Prime Minister, resulting in early elections.

Following the election, it falls to the office of the President – whose position is otherwise strictly ceremonial – to assign the head of one of the elected parties the task of forming a coalition of parties. This means reaching agreements with enough parties so that 61 of the 120 members of Knesset support the government. Theoretically, if a party wins 61 or more seats, then that party can form the government alone, as obviously it would be supported by its 61 Knesset members. However, no party in Israeli history has ever won that many Knesset seats, and thus it becomes necessary for the chosen party to negotiate coalition deals with other parties to form a government. These coalitions are notoriously unstable, always prone to losing members as the winds of politics shift. When this happens, the ruling party can recruit other parties to take the place of the defectors. As long as a coalition of at least 61 seats exists, the 120 elected members of Knesset retain their seats. Falling below the 61-seat mark results in the dissolution of the legislature and new elections. If the party leader chosen by the President succeeds in forming a coalition, he becomes the Prime Minister.

The 2015 Elections

In late polls leading up to the recent election, the center-left party, Zionist Union (itself an alliance of two smaller political parties), led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, enjoyed a modest lead among voters. Nevertheless, when the ballots were cast and the results were announced, Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu and his Likud party carried the day in convincing fashion. Of some 4.25 million votes cast, Likud received 23.40 percent, seizing 30 seats in the Knesset, or one-quarter of the total chamber. Trailing at 18.67 percent was Herzog’s Zionist Union, whose performance entitles it to 24 Knesset seats. Other parties with substantial placement (above the 3.25 percent of the vote required by a new Israeli law for the allotment of Knesset seats) include the Joint List, a political alliance of
four Arab-dominated parties, which received
13 Knesset seats and became the third-largest political party. The next largest parties are Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, with 11 seats, and the new Kulanu party led by former Likud member Moshe Kachlon, which claimed 10 seats.

With the election over and the results tallied, it is now time for Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to choose one party’s leader to form a coalition government and become Prime Minister. It is a foregone conclusion that this person will be Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the victorious Likud party, who is now on track to become the longest serving Prime Minister in Israeli history. Interestingly, President Rivlin has asked Netanyahu and Herzog to form a “unity government” with both their parties, so that the government would represent more Israelis,
though all indications are that this will not happen.

The Inevitable Fallout

Many observers caution that Bibi’s success could potentially create complications for Israel in the coming years, mainly because of statements made by Netanyahu in the days leading up to
the election.

In what may well go down in history as a stroke of
11th-hour political genius, Netanyahu reached out to staunchly right-wing voters – his core constituency – by articulating a hardline, hawkish position. Specifically, he expressed his opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state, reiterated his oppositionto lifting sanctions against Iran, and expressed support for Jewish settlements in the West Bank. These statements brought him votes from smaller right-wing parties, handing him a resounding victory, but they may likely have negative consequences for Israel’s traditionally close relationship with the United States. President Obama’s administration has invested considerable effort into renewing peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority based on the model of a
“two-state solution.” Fromthe administration’s standpoint, Netanyahu’s explicit rejection of such a prospect essentially torpedoes these efforts, and the President and administration officials expressed their dissatisfaction with Netanyahu soon after the election. In a series of interviews given in the days following his reelection, Netanyahu attempted to clarify his stance, explaining that he remains open to the prospect of a Palestinian state, but not under current conditions.

The recent election marked a stunning victory for Benjamin Netanyahu, who just several weeks earlier had reason to fear that his tenure as Prime Minister, and possibly his political career, was nearing its end. But his victory comes at the price of creating potential difficulties for him down the road. On the other hand, many supporters and outside observers believe that Netanyahu is well-suited to face these challenges, being a veteran of Israeli politics who has learned to play the difficult game, and play it exceptionally well. He might now find himself caught between the rock of his constituents and a hard place otherwise known as the West, but if anyone can find his way out of this thicket, it is Netanyahu. Only time will tell.