In a night of dramas, the Israeli public has rejected the rightist Likud party under its leader Binyamin Netanyahu, according to three exit polls, following Tuesday’s general election.
Likud is predicted to have won some 11 seats, down from 40 at the last election (although many of those seats changed hands when Qadima left the Likud four months ago, under the leadership of Ariel Sharon). Two of the exit polls indicate that the Likud will be only the fourth largest party in Israeli politics, having been overtaken for third place by the rightist Yisrael Beiteinu.
Opinion polls during the last two months had predicted Qadima would pick up anywhere from 34 to 45 seats. On Tuesday night, exit polls suggested Ehud Olmert’s party would receive a maximum of 32.
The Labor Party under the former trade-union leader Amir Peretz is believed to have won some 22 seats, several more than earlier polls indicated. Peretz’ aides are already suggesting their leader should be the next finance minister.
The major surprise of the election is the emergence of the Pensioners Party, which could have picked up as many as eight seats in the 120-member Knesset.
The results mean the next government will most likely be headed by Qadima’s Ehud Olmert, with Labor in a strong position to demand key portfolios if it is to join the coalition. Both the leftist Meretz and the Pensioners parties will be looking for seats around the cabinet table. They may have to face up to the possibility of sitting alongside the hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu. The idea of a rightist bloc preventing an Olmert-led government has effectively dissipated with publication of Tuesday night’s exit polls.
Arab representation in the new Knesset will most probably be down on that of the last parliament, with some six to eight lawmakers.
Jewish religious parties will win as many as 17 seats.