With polls so tight heading into the final stretch, winning and losing are increasingly difficult to define. What will the next government look like?
Zionist Union (ZU), the combined party of Tipi Livni’s Hatnuah (The Movement) Party and Labor, lately headed by Isaac “Buji” Herzog, has surged in recent days to a position slightly ahead of Likud and may take the first place spot. Does this constitute winning? Not necessarily. The Right Bloc, those parties generally understood to be on the right, which includes the orthodox religious parties, stands to win a majority in any event. At least once in Israeli history, the 2009 election, the party that formed the government fell slightly short of first place. Kadima, then also led by Tzipi Livni, earned 28 seats to Likud’s 27. The Right Bloc overwhelmed the left and it was thus Likud that was chosen to form the government despite a second place finish.
Bayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) Party leader, and former Likudnik, Naftali Bennet has promised to unite his party with Likud to form the largest party after the election. Thus, even if ZU wins first place they may still fall behind Likud in the aftermath. In an odd twist on Israeli politics, the President of Israel, otherwise a largely ceremonial office, holds the power to designate which party leader should form the next government. While the right holds the Presidency for only the second time in Israeli history, current President, Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin, has long been an opponent of Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. Bibi recently did all he could to prevent Ruby’s election as president; a race Rivlin nearly lost to opposition Hatnuah Party member Meir Sheetrit.
Party leaders can recommend to the President whom they think should form the government, which adds still another layer. There is little controversy about whom the leftwing parties will recommend: Yesh Atid (There is a Future) headed by Yair Lapid and Meretz (Vigor) headed by Zahava Gal-On will certainly recommend ZU’s Herzog and Livni. The United List Party, the combined Arab parties, has stated that they do not want to join a government; nor would any Israeli government want to have as a coalition partner a party that includes Haneen Zoabi.
Centre-right parties like Kulanu (All of Us) and Yisrael Beteinu (Israel is Our Home) will certainly hold significant sway. If these centre-right parties recommend ZU to form a government, it might help make up President Rivlin’s mind in that direction. Kulanu number two, former General Yoav Galant, was recently chastised by party leader Moshe Kahlon (also a former Likudnik) for suggesting Kulanu might recommend Herzog and form an alliance with Yisrael Beteinu.
The largely arbitrary power of the Israeli presidency in this process is just one more argument for the abolition of that office, about which I have previously written.
A Left Coalition
In the political calculus it is still difficult to imagine a leftwing government coming to office. Without the Arab Party, the Left Bloc (according to the poll above) will have just 41 seats, fully 20 shy of the 61 needed for a majority. The pragmatic centre-right parties, Kulanu and Yisrael Beteinu, can only add about 15 seats, assuming both parties could be coaxed into a coalition. This would necessitate still another coalition partner. Likud is unlikely to join a unity government, see below, and Jewish Home is still farther to the right than Likud.
This leaves only the ultra orthodox parties: Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ). Neither of these parties will want to sit on coalition with Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party or Kahlon’s Kulanu. If they do join the government, it will mean major concessions like the repeal of the Haredi (orthodox) draft bill, increased social spending on the privileged Haredi, and decreased participation in the workforce by Haredi men, who prefer to study at religious schools. The left has made social equality a major focus of their campaigns in the last two elections. The extra social benefits for the Haredi have been seen as unfair by the left’s constituents. Women’s rights have also been a central plank in the left’s campaigns of late, another area where the Haredi are diametrically opposed. Making concessions to the Haredi could, thus, alienate leftwing voters.
It is difficult to imagine such a coalition lasting two years let alone four. The Haredi departed Ehud Barak’s government causing its collapse, which led to the election of Likudnik Ariel Sharon. The Haredi would paralyze the government. That is not the only conflict. It would be difficult to imagine a leftwing coalition that includes Yair Lapid who brought the last government to its last leg by refusing to raise taxes. His Yesh Atid Party supports free market reforms and reductions to the cost of living for Israelis. While he will find friends in such a coalition, he would clash with Labor and Meretz Party members. Any number of major crises could bring down the government, and bring about new elections.
A Right Coalition
On the other side, Likud and Jewish Home, who are very likely coalition partners, will hold about 33 seats. With Kulanu and Yisrael Beteinu they would have 48 seats. The centre-left Yair Lapid could help to finish out the coalition, something he might do. In this poll, this coalition would have precisely 60 seats and would thus require another coalition party, but it is possible that these five parties will win 61 or more seats in total. The Haredi parties present an alternative to Lapid with their 19 seats, in the poll above. So far, Yahad (Together), a party that split off from Shas, has been polling right above the electoral threshold of 3.25%, below which a party cannot earn seats in the Knesset. If Yahad clears the threshold and earns seats, they will certainly be reluctant to be in a coalition with Shas. Any coalition could include either Shas or United Torah Judaism and possibly Yahad. Either of these coalitions would be a slightly stronger than the previous one, and might manage a full four-year term.
It is difficult to imagine Bibi heading a unity coalition given the strong opposition shown to him personally by the left. Thus, a unity government can only be imagined in his absence. Yet, if Bibi departed Likud, would Likud be willing to cooperate with a government led by Buji and Tzipi? It is difficult to imagine such a scenario, although if these two parties could reconcile their government would be the most stable option. According to the poll shown above the two parties would boast 47 seats in and of themselves. With Kulanu and Yesh Atid, easy partners, the coalition would achieve 68 seats. It could enjoy general popular support. Again, this is a very unlikely scenario.
An Ambiguous Election
Israeli voters are certainly taking out their frustration against Bibi and the status quo, but they also lack strong alternatives. The left promises greater international respect, stronger ties with the United States, and an end to the diplomatic “crisis.” Buji and Tzipi also promise a stronger middle class. These promises will be difficult to deliver on, especially where they rely on third parties not at all friendly to Israel. A failure to deliver on these could bring the Knesset back before voters in a year or less. Hamas and IS are also eager to draw Israel into conflict, and could bring on still another major crisis.
Bibi’s Last Stand
Perhaps the easiest way out of this election is to give Bibi a final four years during which the next generation of Israeli leaders can be groomed for the PM’s office. In the United States we say it is not good to change horses mid-stream, an idiom used to recommend a second term to an incumbent President (in the last 80 years only two Presidents failed to be reelected). Perhaps, another four years of Bibi would offer the time for the Israeli electorate to consider the alternatives and decide what they want the future to look like.