Elections in Israel

A Vote Against Bibi, Not His Policies

01.22.13 9:15 PM ET

Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have won Israel's election today, but just barely. Netanyahu's Likud party, after its merger with Yisrael Beiteinu last year, held some 42 seats; initial—and unofficial—exit polls have them now at just over 30. Those results show the rightist bloc with 61 Knesset seats to the center-left's 59. The two seat right-left difference belies a gap between the two because of the historical exclusion of Arab parties from ruling coalitions. But that might not stop Shimon Peres—who, as Israel's president, will ask one party to form a coaltion—from picking the center-left bloc to form a government. Netanyahu, however, already has his eyes set on co-opting a party from the center-left. It may well work.

Despite the left-wing Zionist party Meretz doubling its seats, no one is mistaking this for a leftward lurch in Israel's body politic. A wild card could be the ideological malleability of Yair Lapid, the star, so far, of the exit polls, who campaigned unabashedly in settlements. Lapid's Yesh Atid party is poised to pull in nearly 20 seats, making it the second largest party in the Knesset with almost two-thirds the seats of the poll's winner, Netanyahu's Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu party. This might strike some as a victory for the center, but others view Lapid as an opportunist: an Israeli pollster reportedly noted tonight that perhaps half of the votes for Lapid came from ideological right-wingers.

Yet no one can mistake that the great liberal dread—including in these pages—about Naftali Bennett's rise was unfounded, at least for now. Lapid may be malleable, but Bennett was without question on the hard-right, verging on undemocratic. He, more so perhaps than the combative former Yisrael Beiteinu party chair and foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, presented the gravest threat to Israel's image abroad: a frank refusal to even consider a two-state peace deal with the Palestinians, the fig leaf offered to soften the reality of a democracy denying votes to a third of the people whose lives it exercises ultimate control over (Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza). Even Lieberman proposed a formal separation, albeit one that entailed overt racism and abhorrent suggestions of population transfers. Bennett, at the end, seized about a dozen seats, hardly setting him up to be Bibi's right-wing kingmaker.

A peace deal—and an end to settlements that imperil it—aren't likely to spring out of whatever government forms anytime soon: Netanyahu's most likely to come to power, but whoever does will likely rule over an unstable coalition. That's no recipe for bold change. And even if Lapid tacks to the left, the former P.L.O. lawyer Diana Buttu offered this sobering reminder on a conference call with the Institute for Middle East Understanding today: "If you look back on history since '67—whether it's Likud in power or Labor in power—it's that every government has built settlements." Given Lapid's campaigning habits, that might be unlikely to change. This was, as Americans for Peace Now's Ori Nir put it, a vote against Netanyahu by the soft right. But it might not, paradoxically, end up being a vote against his government, or its policies.