Until now, I hesitated to speculate about the nature of a possible new governing coalition in Israel. Lacking real (i.e. post-election) numbers to play with, I felt that working out coalition mathematics was kind of like worrying about what to order at my dinner-date with Bar Rafaeli before I knew if I even had a dinner-date with Bar Rafaeli. Well, I still don’t have a date with Bar (and as we’re now both officially off the market, my odds with her are not good), but the election results are in, so I have something to think about other than tortellini-versus-steak.

Netanyahu scored a crushing victory—but only over other right-wing parties, not over the left or the center. As others have pointed out, the three non-Haredi right-wing parties (Likud, Yisrael Beitenu, and Jewish Home) had 43 Knesset seats after the last election, and they have a combined 44 seats now. The Zionist left (Zionist Union and Meretz) also gained a seat, growing from 27 seats to 28; and the center (Yesh Atid, Kulanu, and Kadima in the last Knesset) maintained its 21 seats. The new Knesset is, if anything, slightly less right-wing than the last one, given the shrinkage of Shas (and the departure of Eli Yishai, who was the more hawkish of its two non-rabbinical leaders).

Jewish-religious parties were the big losers. Jewish Home lost four of its twelve Knesset seats, as many of its former voters voted “strategically” for Likud; it would appear that the party gave up most of its “floating” voters this time, and was left with only its ideological nationalist-Orthodox/“settler” base. This means that Naftali Bennet’s effort to broaden the party’s appeal, which seemed to work two years ago, no longer looks like such a winning approach; if Jewish Home is to survive as more than a small sectorial party, it will have to broaden its appeal by reducing or eliminating its absolute identification with the settlements.

Shas shrank significantly, largely because of the split with Eli Yishai and his new—and failed—Yachad party. It’s also possible that Shas was weakened by the death of Rabbi Ovadya Yosef; while he still appeared on posters, his value as a symbol is likely far less than his value was as a living figure. Further, there has always been a segment of voters who switched back and forth between Shas and Likud, and it’s likely that some of these voted strategically for Likud this time.

In total, Haredi parties dropped from 18 Knesset seats to 13; and if we add Jewish Home, the religious-Jewish parties fell rather dramatically from 30 MK’s to 21.

As predicted, Kahlon is the king-maker—if he wants to be. After all the gushing about Netanyahu’s great victory, it needs to be stressed: even more than last time, he does not have the seats to form a “pure” right-wing/haredi coalition. Without Kulanu and/or Yesh Atid, Netanyahu has 57 Knesset seats (Likud, Jewish Home, Yisrael Beitenu, United Torah Judaism, and Shas, with 30, 8, 6, 6, and 7 MK’s respectively), four short of even the skinniest majority. Yesh Atid, by itself, will not be interested in making up the difference; a right-wing-plus-Haredi-plus-Yesh-Atid coalition would be dysfunctional at best. So it’s all up to Moshe Kahlon, and he can play this several ways:

One option would be to reject Netanyahu’s overtures, and attempt to form a governing coalition based on Zionist Union (24 MK’s), Meretz (4), Yesh Atid (11), Kulanu (10) and outside support from the United (Arab) List (14 MK’s), for a total of 63 supporting Knesset seats. This is a mathematical possibility, but it seems wildly unlikely; and the resulting coalition, reliant on anti-Zionist United List MK’s for its survival, would not be likely to function well. Some of the United List MK’s might be persuaded to join the government (Ahmed Tibi might make quite a good Minister of Health), but this still seems like a very long shot.

Another option would be for Kulanu to attempt (with the presumed assistance of President Rivlin) to force the creation of some form of national-unity government, based around Likud, Zionist Union, Kulanu, and Yesh Atid; with 75 seats together, these four parties would form quite a large coalition, and some other parties (such as Yisrael Beitenu) would likely join up as well. In theory, this kind of governing coalition looks good; but it’s difficult to imagine Benjamin Netanyahu participating in such an arrangement after shifting visibly to the right in the final days of his latest campaign. It’s also far from certain that Zionist Union would be wildly enthusiastic about participating in such a government, even if asked nicely.

Perhaps the most likely option would be for Kulanu simply to drive a hard bargain (in terms of ministerial seats and policies enshrined in the coalition agreement) and join up with Netanyahu and the rest of the right-wing/haredi parties. With this approach, Moshe Kahlon has considerable leverage regarding “jobs for the boys” and ostensible government policies; but he does not have any real leverage in terms of excluding other parties, since (at 67 seats) the coalition would need every party to remain. (Technically, Netanyahu could ditch one six-seat party and still have 61 MK’s on his side; but a 61-seat coalition is not at all viable in the real world.) While this approach is relatively easy for Kahlon (and highly desirable for Netanyahu), it can actually be very dangerous for Kulanu in the long term: the likelihood is that Kulanu, which has yet to really establish its identity as a party, would be perceived as merely a Likud offshoot and would either be absorbed by Likud in the next elections, or else would fade into insignificance. (It doesn’t help that Moshe Kahlon’s presumed Cabinet job is Finance Minister, which is notoriously deadly to any politician’s popularity.) The only way for Kulanu to establish and maintain its “brand” would be for Kahlon and his subordinates to fight vigorously within the coalition for their values; and given the nature of this coalition, it is hard to imagine that they will enjoy great success or happiness. Should such a government be formed, it will almost certainly be a “government of national stasis”: it’s hard to imagine what it could actually accomplish other than maintaining the status quo.

The fourth (and, more or less, final) option would be for Kulanu and Yesh Atid to team up (as Yesh Atid and Jewish Home did last time), and agree that neither one will join a governing coalition without the other. With a combined 21 Knesset seats, these two parties would be in a position to demand significant Cabinet seats, policy changes, and the exclusion of Haredi parties from the coalition. The resulting coalition—Likud, Jewish Home, Yisrael Beitenu, Kulanu, Yesh Atid—would have a reasonable 65 Knesset seats, and could conceivably function pretty well. I’m not at all sure that Netanyahu would be thrilled with this coalition, but I think he could live with it; and this scenario seems to me to be far less dangerous for Kulanu, as Yesh Atid would add considerable weight to the “social” side of the government and thus offer some real possibilities for change.

In short, Moshe Kahlon and his colleagues can decide to be “Likud Lite”, or they can cast themselves as part of a “fighting center”. I never learned how to read tea leaves or coffee grounds, so I really have no idea how Kahlon will play his (potentially) very strong hand.

A slow, subtle re-alignment. The latest election results do not represent a huge, dramatic shift from the previous results; but in fact, they do confirm a gradual trend in Israeli politics. It used to be that coalitions were formed by either Labor or Likud, with the Haredim playing the role of king-maker and extracting significant concessions for their constituents. To some extent, this is still the operative paradigm for politicians like Benjamin Netanyahu; but in reality, it no longer works. Today, the true king-maker in Israeli politics is the center, even though no single centrist party has yet established a long history of survival and success. The Haredim were convenient coalition partners because they could be bought off with a few simple, well-defined concessions to their public: don’t draft us into the IDF, keep funding our yeshivas, and so on. The centrists, while they are not particularly strident on diplomatic/security issues, do have much more comprehensive political goals: reduce housing prices, share the burden of IDF service, reduce the power of the Haredi-dominated Rabbinate, and so on. This makes them less-compliant political bedfellows, but—if Kulanu and Yesh Atid team up and stand their ground—it could actually result in some interesting governance for a change.