Here is the problem.
Benjamin Netanyahu is the Israeli people’s choice for Prime Minister. For some people, this is an enthusiastic vote of confidence in a leader they admire; for others, it is a best-of-a-bad-bunch acceptance of the status quo – or a distrust of other candidates.
Best of a bad bunch is still best. There is no significant support for any other politician to be Israel’s next Prime Minister. This could, of course, be partly because only one other party leader has seriously and consistently presented herself as a candidate for the job: Shelly Yachimovitch of the Labour Party. However, most Habayit Hayehudi voters, most Shas voters and many Yesh Atid voters, for example, say they want Netanyahu to be the PM, rather than the leader of the party they actually voted for. As it stands today, there is no other person who commands a plurality of support as a potential Prime Minister.
But voters in Israel don’t get to vote for the Prime Minister. Israel is a Parliamentary democracy, where the PM needs to construct a coalition that has the support of the Knesset. This usually means a coalition of at least a-half-plus-one of the Knesset (61 members).
Could Netanyahu have built a 61-member coalition by now? Almost certainly. His Likud-Beiteinu faction has 31 seats. So, put together, do Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and Naftali Bennett’s HaBayit Hayehudi. If Netanyahu had agreed to their demands on the first day of negotiations, he could have a Cabinet already.
Many Israelis – realising this – are angry and disappointed that the Prime Minister hasn’t made this exact deal. Why does he seem so obsessed with bringing in Shas or Labour?
It’s easy to be cynical about politics and write off Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments about wanting a “wide government” as political cowardice or shammery, but he has a point. A coalition based around Bennett, Lapid and Livni wouldn’t be especially stable. Its first major test would have been when the Supreme Court ordered the evacuation of an unauthorised outpost in the West Bank considered illegal under Israeli law, or when the Court found that a neighbourhood of a settlement is built partly on land privately owned by a Palestinian, or when the next stage of the E1 construction plan came up for approval. Any of these likely scenarios could collapse a narrow coalition, especially given that in these examples the majority of the Likud caucus would be more likely to follow Naftali Bennett’s lead than the Prime Minister’s. Likud voters would likely follow if Bennett chose to collapse a government from the Right, weakening Likud further in any subsequent election. A narrow coalition is like a tightrope: Netanyahu would find himself a circus performer, walking this tightrope while juggling the competing interests of the different factions in his government.
Given the choice, what tightrope-walker wouldn’t prefer a safety net? So it’s quite reasonable of Netanyahu to try as hard as he can to give himself at least a 12-seat cushion to protect him at least from Bennett, if not the 19-seat net he would need to keep him safe from a possible withdrawal by Yesh Atid. Hence the immense amount of work and political capital spent to try and bring Shas alongside Yesh Atid, the overtures to Labour and the deal – unpopular with Likud’s right-leaning base – to make Tzipi Livni Justice Minister and give her responsibility for negotiation with the Palestinians.
Bismark called politics “the art of the possible”. There is no possible ‘wide coalition’ this time around. Lapid and Bennett are clear that they want the Haredim to serve in the military or national service, while Shas remains resolute that they should not. The Labour party has come under immense pressure to join the government, being offered terms so favourable that they’re hard to refuse; hard, but not impossible.
Netanyahu still has two more weeks to form a government. If he fails, President Peres could ask another Knesset member to try – but whom? Shelly Yachimovich won’t be able to build a coalition either, and her party is only the third-largest. Yair Lapid has been a Knesset member for only a couple of weeks – he wants to be Prime Minister one day, but probably not yet. Another senior Likud figure (Gidon Saar, maybe, or Moshe Yaalon) could conceivably be asked to try and form a government, but that would require a coup inside Likud, and the damage of such a coup would hurt the party and risk its alliance with Yisrael Beiteinu.
Therefore, if Benjamin Netanyahu fails to form a coalition, there will almost certainly have to be new elections.
Polls for these theoretical elections are already being conducted, and they agree on one thing – Likud and Labour would both lose seats, as would Tzipi Livni’s Movement party. The beneficiaries would be Bennett and, most dramatically, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. In fact, adjusting for pollster bias, it seems likely that Yesh Atid would be the largest party in the Knesset if new elections were held tomorrow.
And then what? Because the public still wants Bibi Netanyahu to be the Prime Minister, still expects him to be and still hasn’t been exposed to anyone who feels like nationally-credible challenger. Netanyahu has several potential heirs in his party and a few potential successors outside it, but nobody who the public would accept as Israel’s Prime Minister by Yom Haatzmaut. What happens if Yair Lapid finds himself as head of the biggest Knesset faction in five weeks’ time? His own party platform says that the head of the biggest party should be the Prime Minister!
Of course, all of this explains why there won’t, in reality, be new elections. The Prime Minister and Likud Beiteinu have too much to lose from new elections, while Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid would stand to gain. This is why their joint negotiating position has been so strong.
And there’s another consideration in the back of the PM’s mind. Last year, he told the United Nations General Assembly that the world had until spring to stop Iran’s nuclear programme. This is the window for potential Israeli action against Iranian nuclear sites. A strike during a political campaign is unpredictable and could well damage Netanyahu politically; it will look like a stunt, even though it wouldn’t actually be a stunt.
So there is no safety net. Israel will probably find itself with a tightrope coalition in a couple of days, with Likud Beiteinu, Habayit Hayehudi, Yesh Atid, Livni’s party and probably Kadima – a total of 70 Knesset seats.
This government will be small, with some ministries and Cabinet seats abolished. It will press ahead with a social agenda around the Haredi draft, middle-class housing and education. And it will probably fall apart in 12-18 months over an issue relating to the Palestinians or settlements. When that happens, Israel might yet have its new elections after all. Or, perhaps, the effort that the Prime Minister put into wooing the Haredi parties and Labour would then eventually pay off, because they could end up saving him by joining his government.