As we enter the final week of the Israel election campaign, everyone is wondering who will win the leadership battle between the two main parties, the right of center Likud and the left-wing Zionist Camp, but should that really be the main question?
In the latest polls, Prime Minister Benjamin(Bibi) Netanyahu’s Likud appears to be running neck in neck with Yitzhak (Buji) Herzog and Tzipi Livni’s joint party. However, in Israel’sproportional election system, the party that wins the most votes doesn’t automatically form the government. The prime example was in 2009, when one of Livni’s previous parties, Kadima, won 28 seats in the Knesset to the Likud’s 27, but she couldn’t put together the necessary majority with the other parties in the 120 seat Knesset.
With the latest polls showing the race between the two main parties too close to call, the real question becomes the relative strength of the middle-sized parties such as Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home), Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, which are all currently estimated to receive between 8-13 seats. Another central question is what kinds of coalition deals will be formed in the days and weeks after the elections.
One of the highlights of of the previous elections was the unlikely post-election pact between Bayit Yehudi and Yesh Atid, which strengthened the post-election bargaining power of both. The eventual collapse of the Bennett-Lapid pact was, to a great extent, what led to the recent breakup of the governing coalition and to the upcoming March 17 election, as the right- left and religious-secular divide between those two medium-sized parties proved too great to pass the test of time. The subsequent infighting within the coalition then became unbearable as the unshackled Lapid moved to his more natural position on the left of the political spectrum.
Unless the Union of Arab parties, with its expected 12-14 seats, is invited into a possible Herzog-Livni coalition, the Left’s prospects for gaining a Knesset majority are slim at best. Given a close election, that leaves Netanyahu as the likely head of the next coalition.
Assuming he is given that task, the real question is in which direction he will go in forming his new coalition. Netanyahu heads a party that often claims to believe in the complete Land of Israel, yet its leader publicly supports a demilitarized Arab “Palestinian” state in Judea and Samaria, a position that he reaffirmed this week. Furthermore, Likud believes in a free economy, yet its leader has been hesitant in confronting the major monopolies. The successful cell phone monopoly breakup, implemented by then Communications Minister Kahlon when he was still in the Likud, was a notable exception.
The respective electoral strengths of those middle-sized parties will determine the direction of the new coalition, as will the “day-after” deals which may give birth to new strategic partnerships. There were initially contacts between Lapid and Kahlon to form such a strategic partnership, although Kahlon’s recent harsh criticism of Lapid’s work as FinanceMinister may have put a damper on those negotiations. Meanwhile, it has been reported that Bayit Yehudi’s Bennett is negotiating with Kulanu’s Kahlon and separately with the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties to explore such mutually beneficial arrangements for “the day after”.
Yes, it will be interesting to see which of the two largest parties wins, but the actual direction of the new coalition may not be determined by Bibi, nor by Buji. Whatever the results on March 17, expect the coalition negotiations to last at least several weeks. If the election is close, Netanyahu will likely be tasked with forming the next government, after which he will probably use the threat of a Bibi-Buji-Tzipi unity coalition to keep all of his potential junior partners in their place and to lower their demands. Following through on that threat would, of course, contradict his explicit and repeatedly stated campaign pledge not to join coalition forces with the Left, but then again, after Election Day, anything goes, right?
Reprinted with author’s permission from Blogs Zion’s Corner