Early results are trickling in (official Knesset site, but only in Hebrew), and calculations of electoral math has begun. Results, which have been relatively stable seem to suggest that the largest party will be Kadima, headed by Livni, with 28 seats. Yet, she will only be able to claim the premiership if one of the parties to her right sells out.
Right now, the Left-wing bloc (Kadima, Labor, Meretz, Hadash, Ra’am-Ta’al and Balad) has 55 seats. In theory, this would mean Livni has seven fewer seats than she needs for a majority. However, Ahmed Tibi, of Balad, said before the elections that the Arab parties would not help Livni form a bloc, no matter the price. This effectively leaves Livni with a 48-seat bloc.
In the past, Shas has joined a Left-wing government, and seemed willing to do so only a few short months ago, when Livni was tasked with forming a coalition following Olmert’s resignation. She refused to give into Shas’ demands (monetary and Jerusalem), and today was the result. One of her biggest selling points during the campaign was that she refused to capitulate to Shas.
Furthermore, Shas chairman, Eli Yishai (projected: 11 seats), said tonight that “there is no doubt that the people have chosen the Right,” (Hebrew source) implying they would throw their support behind Netanyahu, and not Livni. Then again, Shas has shown in the past that in return for Shas’ support, one must only, literally, pay a price. And even then Livni will only have 59 seats (maybe 63, if Hadash votes along with Shas).
The other kingmaker in these elections is the man the media loves to hate – Yisrael Beitenu chairman, Avigdor Lieberman, and his projected 15 seats. While he did say that he prefers a Right-wing coalition, he refused to endorse either Netanyahu nor Livni. I think that is more of a power play than anything else. The odds of Livni forming a coalition with him are not particularly high. Livni would have a hard time convincing Labor, not to mention Meretz (3 seats), to join such a coalition. This coalition would be pretty unstable, only narrowly adding up to a majority, with 63 seats (unless pigs start flying and Hadash sits in the same government with Lieberman, making it 67). It is more likely that Lieberman is trying to play hard to get, in order to squeeze a better coalition deal out of Netanyahu.
There are two remaining scenarios paving Livni’s way to the Prime Minister’s Office. The first is highly unlikely – Likud joining a Kadima-led coalition. The scenarios I have already described, all lead to a quick collapse of the government and the Knesset, with elections yet again on the horizon. If he joined Livni’s government, he would only be breathing life into a government comatose before it would even be sworn into office, not to mention he has already declared victory.
The last option Livni has is a rotation government. In such an arrangement, she would serve as PM for two years, and then Netanyahu would serve for two years (or vice versa), or some other similar schedule of rotation. This sort of agreement would not be unprecedented, as Yitzchak Shamir and Shimon Peres had a similar agreement in the early 1980s.
This would only happen, though, if Netanyahu would truly be convinced that he could not form the coalition on his own. Despite calls for a unity government during the campaign, if Netanyahu is able to maintain the support the 65-seat Right-wing bloc, Peres will have no choice but to nominate him to head the next government. In the meantime, however, more chaos shall ensue.
EDIT: The soldiers’ votes will only be counted Thursday, and with nearly 200,000 votes (though many vote in their regular polling places, so the numbers are still unclear) they have the potential to change the results by a few seats.
EDIT2: Numbers have been changed to reflect the latest, slightly different results (100% in, as of now – but in Israel, as in Israel – numbers are not yet final).
EDIT3: It should be recalled that, in 2001, Netanyahu essentially gave up the premiership to Sharon, arguing that he could not form a coalition on the basis of already formed Knesset (elected in 1999, with Barak). Considering Sharon’s meteoric rise and mega-stature since, one can only assume that he has regretted that moment ever since. History is a powerful motivator. He will not let this one slip by, and I think he will do everything in his power to prevent Livni from assuming the country’s highest office – even if the current chaos deteriorates into new elections without any new government.
UPDATE: Jameel adds an accurate clarification, that the “100%” of votes tallied, does not include special ballots (soldiers, diplomats, sailors, prisoners and hospital patients.)