The exit polls are out, and the big surprise of Israel’s general election is not the winner but the runner-up. Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”), a center-left party formed just last year by TV personality Yair Lapid, is predicted to win 18 or 19 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. For Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the incumbent prime minister, this may prove rather convenient, allowing him to form a more manageable governing coalition than he was expecting.
Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud-Beiteinu party, which is polling around 30 seats, 11 fewer than it has now, will need to find even more seats than last time among coalition partners to make up a government. (Israeli governing coalitions typically include four or more parties, usually led by the biggest.) Many observers had thought that Netanyahu would be forced to bring in several parties even further to the right of his own: Jewish Home—a pro-settler party led by Naftali Bennett, a former high-tech entrepreneur, which has broad appeal among both religious and secular right-wingers—and a couple of ultra-religious parties.
However, even that might not have been enough, and to make up the numbers, as well as to leaven the mix, Netanyahu was expected to try to add a center-left party to make his government look less extremist. Of these, Yesh Atid was the only one that had shown signs of being willing to join, since Netanyahu is no longer willing to pay even lip-service to maintaining a peace process with the Palestinians. It would have been a large, unwieldy, and quarrelsome coalition.
But with Yesh Atid’s strong showing, plus Jewish Home, which is polling 13-14 seats, Netanyahu could conceivably keep the ultra-religious out of the coalition altogether, or include them but offer them fewer concessions in return. That would ease a budgetary problem: the religious parties’ usual price for joining a government is extra funding for social benefits and religious schools. With Israel running a budget deficit of twice the government’s target, not having to pay those bills would be welcome.
As for Yesh Atid, one of the party’s spokesmen said in a recent interview that its price for joining a Netanyahu government would include concessions on various social issues, but the peace process wasn’t one of them. That, together with Lapid’s personal popularity but political inexperience, could make the party a very palatable member of the coalition—both to the Israeli public and to Netanyahu himself.