The Israeli exit poll results are in, and all 3 national TV channels are in agreement -- Kadima and current Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni have garnered a 2-seat lead over Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud party, 30-28 (or 29-27). If these predictions hold up (and they may yet prove unreliable), according to Israeli political norms Livni will be tapped to attempt to form a new coalition government of at least 61 parliamentary seats. This is not a sure thing, though, for according to Israeli law the Israeli President Shimon Peres (Kadima) must consult with all the parties to determine who will have the most support in forming a government. Only then, after a week of consultations, will the President designate a politician to form a government. The right-national parties have apparently agreed amongst themselves to uniformly recommend Netanyahu to Peres. It is nevertheless hard to imagine Peres turning away from Livni. More on that later.
This is not the only surprise. Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu party seriously underperformed the pre-election polls. Instead of amassing 18 seats in the upcoming 18th Kenesset, Yisrael Beitenu managed only 14 or 15 seats. Lieberman may not find himself in the future government. Lieberman wants to see a right-wing government, and might indeed try to create with Netanyahu a blocking action to foil Livni from forming a center-right government. Netanyahu almost made the ultimate comeback -- from the irrelevancy of 12 seats in the 17th Kenesset to 27 or 28 in the new Kenesset. He just couldn't cross the finish line. But Lieberman is willing to listen to all offers.
The third surprise -- not really a surprise -- is the collapse of historic Labor and its leader, current Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Earlier I speculated that for Barak, the Gaza War was a Hail Mary pass for electoral relevancy. The strategy failed. Labor and Barak are now facing the dilemma of Netanyahu and Likud after the 2006 elections -- a humiliating 4th-place finish, the size of an irrelevant minor boutique party comprising 13 seats.
Livni had an opportunity late last year to form a government out of the more favorable configuration of the 17th Kenesset without going to national elections. She refused to accede to demands of the Shas party on social spending and on national security positions, and instead chose to go to the polls. Neither Kadima nor Shas will easily forget that episode. It was a gutsy, some say tempestuous, roll of the dice, and one could argue that Livni did not improve her situation by going to the nation. Livni now awaits Peres's decision, facing the option of forming a weak center-right government (Kadima-Likud-Labor), or a stronger right-right government (Kadima-Labor-Yisrael Beitenu-National Union), or no government at all.
On the BBC I just heard Palestinian senior negotiator Saeb Erakat speculating on the possibility of a rotation-government, whereby Livni becomes Prime Minister for 2 years, and then Netanyahu takes over. As strange as this seems, it is reminiscent of the hamstrung rotation government of 1984-88 between then Labor leader Shimon Peres and Likud's Yitzhak Shamir. Peres started first as PM, with Shamir as Foreign Minister; then in late 1986 they switched roles. Peres tried to advance peace feelers, which Shamir struggled to undo. It is possible we might see such an outcome.
What is clear is that Israel has taken a hard right turn. Kadima leads the electoral race, but Likud leads the largest electoral bloc of right-nationalists. All the self-defined rightist, nationalist (and religious) parties could constitute a blocking action of at least 62 seats. Can any of them be peeled away from this right-national bloc through promises of cabinet slots, baksheesh, or compromised political stances? That is Livni's dilemma.
At the State Department, fingers must be crossed in the hope that Livni will be the new Israeli PM.
A murky outcome, indeed. Livni may have narrowly won the evening, and yet lost the opportunity to govern.
Update, 10:30 pm (4:30 am Israel time): with the official vote count now 100% complete, it appears that the Kadima lead has been trimmed to one seat, 28 to 27 for Likud. In a further blow to the Israeli left, Meretz has been reduced to a 3 seat presence in the upcoming Kenesset.