Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has apparently defied the mainstream media and the Obama administration with a stunning, come-from-behind victory in Israel’s elections on Tuesday. Netanyahu’s Likud Party had been projected to lose to Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union by a margin of 26-22. Two exit polls released at the close of voting, however, suggested Likud would win, 28-27 (a third poll showed them tied). Netanyahu is now expected to form a new governing coalition.
The results suggest that the race shifted dramatically in the last few days, as Netanyahu opted for an all-in, “gevalt” effort to rally his supporters.
Netanyahu had three messages: first, that if Israelis wanted him to return to power, they would have to vote for his party; second, that he would not allow a Palestinian state to be created despite earlier commitments; third, that foreign donors and governments were mobilizing Arab voters, including some who oppose Israel’s existence, to turn out.
It was a blunt, ugly message that may create future political and diplomatic problems for Netanyahu, but it appears to have worked.
Meanwhile, the mainstream media are at a loss for words. They had expected Netanyahu to lose, perhaps even by a wide enough margin to put Herzog in the pole position to form a new government. They had expected economic issues to trump security issues, which were Netanyahu’s focus. And they expected far stronger Arab turnout (as did Netanyahu).
Herzog did put up a good fight, and will have cemented his leadership role in the opposition while building an international profile. The real loser is President Barack Obama, who undoubtedly hoped for a poor showing by Netanyahu. And the even bigger loser is the Iranian regime, who will now face an emboldened Israeli leader who made the case for his re-election on the grounds of strong public opposition to the generous terms of the nuclear deal that Obama is negotiating with Iran.
The most important immediate consequence of the election is that Netanyahu’s defense minister, Moshe “Bogey” Ya’alon, is likely to retain his post. A thorn in the side of Secretary of State John Kerry, whom he called “messianic,” Ya’alon is one of the few military planners in the western world with a grasp on the strategic realities of the Middle East. He has been a counsel of patience for Netanyahu, advising him not to waste resources on Hamas while Iran still looms as the enemy.
Netanyahu will also have some compromises to make en route to forming a new coalition. He will likely have to deliver on his promise to hand control over the finance ministry to one of his rivals, for example. And this may be his final term in office, given how close he came to defeat.
Yet the importance of his victory cannot be diminished. It is the biggest media surprise since “Dewey Defeats Truman”–a remarkable feat in today’s environment of big data, big media and big money.