The final shifts in the elections results make it arithmetically easier for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a coalition without either of the two ultra-Orthodox parties, and without the left-wing Hatnua and Labor as well, should he choose to do so.
Netanyahu, whose 31-seat Likud-Beytenu will be the incoming Knesset’s largest faction, met Thursday to discuss a possible coalition with Yair Lapid, whose new Yesh Atid party, with 19 seats, will be the second largest, and the question of ultra-Orthodox participation was reportedly the focus of part of their lengthy conversation. Lapid would rather keep the ultra-Orthodox Shas out of the government; Netanyahu has reportedly told Shas’s Eli Yishai, and Yaakov Litzman of the second ultra-Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism, that he wants both of them in.
The final results of Tuesday’s election, announced Thursday, confirmed that the centrist Kadima party had just managed to clear the 2% electoral threshold and squeezed two representatives into the Knesset. The last votes also added a 12th seat to the right-wing, Modern Orthodox Jewish Home party, at the expense of a seat lost by Arab party Ra’am-Ta’al.
Those final figures mean that a coalition of solely right-wing and centrist parties — Likud-Beytenu, Yesh Atid, Jewish Home and Kadima — would hold 64 seats, a small majority in the 120-member Knesset.
Should he wish to, Netanyahu could seek to build such a coalition to focus on all three of the priority issues he publicly highlighted on Wednesday — extending national service to the ultra-Orthodox community, grappling with the high cost of living, and reforming the electoral system. Those four parties potentially have fairly similar positions on these issues, whereas the ultra-Orthodox parties have very different stances on them, most notably on the issue of national service, which they firmly oppose.
The more left-wing Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua could potentially join such a coalition, although there would be major differences with the right-wing parties over diplomatic and security issues.
Shas leaders have said they consider it “unthinkable” that Netanyahu would choose to leave their party out of the coalition. And most analysts believe Netanyahu would be reluctant to break his longtime partnership with the ultra-Orthodox for what might prove to be a shorter-term alliance with other parties. Thus, he would rather have a wider coalition, with both ultra-Orthodox and center-left parties, if he can find the necessary common ground.
Shas leaders also said Thursday that even if national service was imposed on the ultra-Orthodox community, its adherents would refuse to leave their full-time Torah study unless their spiritual leaders ruled otherwise.
Netanyahu himself scuppered draft legislation, drawn up by outgoing Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner last year, that would have introduced parameters for ultra-Orthodox army or other national service, and his short-lived coalition partnership with Kadima fell apart over the issue. It would seem unlikely, therefore, that the prime minister would force a direct confrontation with the ultra-Orthodox parties over the matter, and that he would be more inclined to seek a negotiated solution.
Whatever the case, the final election arithmetic would appear to give him a slightly strengthened position in any such discussions, and Lapid’s evident desire to join the coalition is a further boost. Lapid, however, made the issue of ultra-Orthodox service one of the centerpieces of his successful political campaign, and will thus presumably be adamant that it is dealt with promptly and effectively as a condition for his joining the coalition.