Not surprisingly, Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteynu coalition won a plurality of seats for the 19th Knesset in last week’s Israeli election. However, while his victory may have seemed certain, his post-election position is much weaker than some of the pre-election opinion polls had predicted and his struggle to form a government of his choice may have only just begun. A quick glance at the new electoral map shows that even with their projected 12-seat lead over the next largest party, forming a government with only right-wing parties (without the religious Orthodox) would leave Likud-Beiteynu short of the 60 seats needed for a Knesset majority. Representing the right-wing political establishment, Netanyahu has to reach out to one of the remaining three traditional Israeli political blocks; the ultra-Orthodox, the center-left and the Israeli Arab. Since no Israeli government is considered “legitimate” unless it has a Jewish majority, only the ultra-Orthodox and the center-left blocks are likely to be considered.
Netanyahu’s choices all mean different things in terms of the direction the prime minister could take Israel in the coming years. On the one hand, only the prime minister can tell us which issues he deems to be national priorities. Although we have a vague idea about Netanyahu’s Iran policies and his pro-settlement sentiments, it will really be his choice of coalition partners that will determine which national and international issues will make it to the top of the next Israeli government’s agenda. While the Iranian nuclear issue will surely continue to be a priority regardless of what shape the coalition takes, other issues—including the question of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks—may not be considered a priority at all.
The public opinion polls prior to the election indicated that the Israeli electorate was shifting further to the right. However, Tuesday’s results showed a much more complex and moderate picture. The most surprising outcome was perhaps the resurgence of the center left, this time with the new party of Yesh Atid. Under the leadership of former television host Yair Lapid, the new party managed to garner 19 seats, putting it in second place after Likud. Thus, the leftist-centrist block, which includes, Tzipi Livni’s HaTnua party and Shelly Yacimovich’s Labor, is now in fact the strongest of the four traditional electoral blocks. While the right-wing national religious party, HaBayt HaYehudi (Jewish Home), gained some of Likud’s seats, its new chairman, Naftali Bennet, did not garner as strong a support as he expected, making his pro-annexationist policies far from challenged in a future coalition.
Whether HaBayt HaYehudi is included in the coalition is the first question that Netanyahu will have to tackle. Having gone from 3 to 12 seats, Bennet’s party cannot easily be ignored. However, fearing a fall-out of his political base, Netanyahu’s relationship with those to the right of him is famously acrimonious. Like all politicians, Netanyahu is first and foremost concerned about his own political survival and his recent pro-settlement policies can partly be credited to an effort to stem the erosion of votes to the extreme right. Forming a narrow right-wing-ultra-orthodox coalition with Bennet would show right-leaning voters that Netanyahu shares HaBayt Yehudi’s settlement ideology as well as its opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state. But, due to the strength of HaBayt HaYehudi, it would also force the prime Minister to offer the party several important cabinet positions that would allow its ministers to determine the direction of both domestic and international policy. Such a move would not be promising for future efforts to re-start Israeli-Palestinian negotiations nor for the Prime Minister’s relationship with Western leaders.
Netanyahu may therefore opt to either balance the coalition with one of the larger parties from the center or he may decide to leave Bennet out of the coalition altogether (See the possible scenarios here). While a centrist balancing force would allow for a counterweight to the extreme right, such a coalition would be highly dysfunctional and probably short lived, especially if—in addition to the center—the religious orthodox parties are also included. Even if consensus could be found on domestic issues, (which is unlikely given the disagreement about conversion policies between Ultra-orthodox Shas and national religious HaBayt haYehudi and the disagreement about the haredi draft between Shas and Yesh Atid) the gaps in foreign policy preferences would be too large to bridge.
The remaining option for Netanyahu is to form what Israelis like to call a “national Unity government” with Likud-Beyteinu and two parties from center-left. Yair Lapid has indicated that he would not be opposed to serving in a Netanyahu government and only Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) has publically announced that she prefers to form a unified opposition. Putting together a government with Yair Lapid, Ehud Barak, and Tzipi Livni would lead to some tough bargaining for Netanyahu especially on the issue of peace talks and settlements. However, by putting Israel on a definite trajectory towards restarting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, it would gain him the respect of the international community. Due to the respect that these moderate Israeli politicians have with the Obama administration and with the EU leadership, a national unity government may also lead to tangible benefits in areas other than diplomacy, such as commerce and trade.
Thus, a center-left-Likud-Beiteynu coalition seems like a wise choice for Mr. Netanyahu. Whether he makes that choice however still depends on the ideological commitment that he himself has to the various issues at stake (including his pro-settlement policies) and his willingness to address them during his next term.
Tova Norlen is a recipient of the Transatlantic Postdoctoral Fellowship in International Security and Relations (TAPIR) and is currently in residence at the RAND Corporation in Washington DC. Between August-December 2012 she was a post-doc fellow at the Center for Security Studies in Zurich.
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