02.10.09

Israel's Election-Night Surprise

When exit polls showed Tzipi Livni as the surprise winner, a cheer went up at Kadima headquarters. But will Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu end up prime minister?

Watching Israeli television as the election returns came in involved a sharp change of mood—and in Washington, the Obama team must have gone through a similarly rapid shift. The moment the polls closed—10 p.m. in Tel Aviv, 3 p.m. in Washington—the TV networks all reported that the campaign’s dove, Tzipi Livni, was the surprise winner.

Within half an hour, however, the networks and all the smartest analysts declared that Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu was more likely to be the next prime minister.

It was precisely what the White House and the State Department wanted: an Israeli politician they could work with, a woman who had been in charge of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and a foreign minister who said that eventually Israel would have to evict many of the 300,000 Jewish settlers from the territories it captured in 1967.

Within half an hour, however, the networks and all the smartest analysts declared that Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu was more likely to be the next prime minister. No political party scored anywhere near the 61 Knesset seats needed for a majority, but Netanyahu—who shows no willingness to surrender the West Bank and says the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza was a mistake—has the best chance of putting together a coalition to reach that magic number.

The exit-poll numbers on the huge TV screens were greeted with screams of joy, at first, at the headquarters of Livni’s Kadima Party: 30 parliamentary seats for Kadima versus 28 for Netanyahu’s Likud. If the exit polls are accurate, the numbers would be the opposite of what pre-election surveys had indicated.

The Labor Party, which governed Israel for its first three decades and intermittently since then, has sunk to just 13 seats. Party leader Ehud Barak, a former prime minister and currently defense minister, has been humiliated.

The kingmaker is Avigdor Lieberman. Much has been written, in recent weeks, about the rise of this charismatic politician, notable for his thick Russian accent, who demands that every citizen of Israel take a loyalty oath to the Jewish state—an implied rejection of the non-Jewish Arabs who make up almost a quarter of Israel’s 6 million inhabitants.

Lieberman’s party, known as Yisrael Beitenu, or “Israel Is Our Home,” was allotted 15 seats by most exit polls. If he goes with Livni, she could form a governing coalition. If he goes with Netanyahu, which is far more likely, then Bibi—who as prime minister in the 1990s often frustrated President Bill Clinton and his mediation plans—will be Israel’s leader again.

Israeli President Shimon Peres gets to choose who gets first crack at forming a government. He might have to bow to the realities of coalition-building if Netanyahu can prove that he has more than 60 newly elected Knesset members ready to back him. But Peres is a longtime Labor leader who later sat with Livni and Ehud Olmert in the still-comatose Ariel Sharon’s Kadima-led government.

Peres may want to give Livni every possible chance to form the next government and become prime minister. And that’s precisely what Barack Obama would like.

Dan Raviv, a CBS News correspondent, is co-author of Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israeli Intelligence and Friends in Deed: Inside the Israel-U.S. Alliance.