The question Israeli political pundits ask regarding the upcoming January 22, 2013 Knesset (parliamentary) elections is not what party will be asked by President Shimon Peres to form the next government, nor are they asking who will be the next Prime Minister of Israel. All public opinion polls predict that Likud-Beitenu would emerge as the largest party, and that Benjamin Netanyahu will continue to serve as Israel’s Prime Minister. The operative question is which parties will join Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitenu to form the next coalition government. The answer to that will determine the direction and the likely policies of the next Netanyahu government.
Averaged polls shows Likud-Beitenu with more than double the number of Knesset seats (35) than the next party (Labor) with 16, headed by Shelly Yachimovich. Recent indicators point out that Likud-Beitenu is losing votes to the Bayit Yehudi party (Jewish Home), led by Naftali Bennett, which is emerging as the third largest party with 14 seats. Ariyeh Deri and Eli Ishai leading Shas, the Orthodox Sephardic party comes out in fourth place with 11 seats. Torah Judaism, the Ashkenazi Orthodox party, is expected to get 6 seats and the Shas breakaway candidate Haim Amsalem and his Am Shalem party is projected to receive 2 seats.
While the center-right/religious/nationalist bloc is expected to master 69 seats out of the 120 in Israel’s Knesset, the center-left-left bloc can only count on 22 (16 for Labor and 6 for Meretz. Zehava Gal-On leads the Meretz party with projected 6 seats). The Arab parties including the communist Hadash party are figured to garner together only 10 seats, and it is unlikely that they will be part of any Israeli-Zionist government coalition.
The Center bloc is of great interest to Netanyahu as first choice partners. That would include Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, led by the former TV anchor and son of the late maverick Tommy Lapid with 10, a rise from a previously projected 8. Former Kadima government Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, now leading her new party, Ha’tnuah (the Movement), hoping to capitalize on Obama’s anti-Netanyahu remarks, is likely to win only 7 seats. Kadima, the party founded by PM Ariel Sharon, and led by PM Ehud Olmert, which won 28 seats in 2009 (largest party) but now under Shaul Mofaz’s chairmanship is projected to barely scrape the threshold of 2% of the vote with possibly 2 seats.
Netanyahu’s natural partners, the religious parties and Bayit Yehudi, who share his concern for the sanctity of the Land of Israel, are at best his secondary choice. A budget deficit in 2012 of $10 billion will require deep cuts, which Shas in particular will oppose. The centrist parties, will however, eagerly back his budget cuts and support his campaign to draft orthodox men to the Israel Defense Forces, or alternatively to do national service. The slogan “sharing the burden” is not something the ultra-orthodox parties cherish, but Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu party (now merged with Likud) is really keen on implementing as are the centrist parties.
Another reason for Netanyahu to prefer a coalition with the centrist parties is that he faces severe pressure from the Obama administration to make concessions to the Palestinians. He would certainly enjoy a better reception in the White House if Tzipi Livni (albeit, she has attacked him viciously in the last 3-4 years, both at home and abroad) or Yair Lapid sat in his cabinet rather than a patriotic Israeli such as Nafatli Bennett. The more left-leaning or moderate Likud leaders such as Benny Begin (son of Menahem Begin) and Dan Meridor have been booted out of the Likud primaries, and the party itself has moved somewhat to the right. Ironically, it is Netanyahu himself who represents today the most liberal element in the Likud.
The problem Netanyahu faces with his first choice is mathematical. Notwithstanding at least some ideological differences with Livni (who has moved to the left), the centrist bloc, with a projected 19 seats would not be enough to form a majority, and it would require at least one religious party to join him, probably Torah Judaism, and possibly Am Shalem as well. Still, it will only have a bare majority of 62.
Should Netanyahu add a like-minded ideological partner like Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, he would have a strong coalition of possibly 76 seats, but Bennett would not compromise on territorial concessions to the Palestinians while being agreeable on budget cuts and “burden sharing.” Bennett however would insist on his party receiving the Education portfolio. Livni, on her part, would most likely refuse to join a coalition with Bennett in it.
To force Netanyahu to include the religious parties in his coalition government, Ariyeh Deri of Shas and Yakov Lintzman of Torah Judaism formed a common front against passing “sharing the burden,” which is one of the issues Netanyahu’s partner Lieberman sought in their merger, and that would naturally exclude the religious parties. Netanyahu will not, however, reach the desired centrist coalition without Torah Judaism, unless of course he invites Bennett as a full partner.
Netanyahu has another option. He could invite the Labor to form a purely secular coalition, which would enable him to end support for the religious institution, and force the Orthodox community to “share the economic and military burden.” Such a coalition that included Labor, Yesh Atid, Ha’tnuah, and Kadima would have 70 seats, but it would alienate Likud’s traditional allies –the religious parties, and such a coalition has no guarantee of surviving beyond the short term. Labor’s chair Shelly Yachimovich has moreover pledged that she will not enter a coalition with Netanyahu. More importantly, Netanyahu’s own elected Likud Knesset members would rebel against such a move.
In a gathering of all major party leaders organized by Maariv in Eilat on January 17, 2013, leaders of Yesh Atid, Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni’s Ha’tnuah, and Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi all called for a national unity government, indicating that something of a Centrist coalition could be on the horizon following the upcoming January 22 national elections. But, to complicate matters further, Bennett stated that he is against a Palestinian State, while Livni charged that she is the only one that would seek to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
To solve the coalition dilemma facing him, Netanyahu must be a biblical Solomon of sorts. It will not be easy to put the centrist-secular parties together with a religious party (Torah Judaism) given the Lapid family contempt for the ultra-religious parties. Nor will it be possible for Bennett and Livni to dwell together in a coalition government that negotiates away parts of Judea and Samaria.
In the end, however, Netanyahu can only count on the fact that Lapid, Livni, and even Yachimovich would rather play an active role in the government than vegetate in the opposition. Should Netanyahu compromise on matters of territorial concessions to satisfy his center-left coalition partners, he might find numerous members of his own Likud party abandoning him and forming a new party yet again. Netanyahu’s dilemma in forming his coalition government is real, and his political acumen will be tested in alienating the least number of people while uniting his partners in the common goal of national interest and the survival of Israel.
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