Let the arithmetic begin

Heading a faction with a meager 31 seats, Netanyahu still has a range of coalition options — but he’s a lot weaker than he’d want to be, and Lapid has plenty of leverage

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Knesset at the opening of its winter session in October 2012 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Knesset at the opening of its winter session in October 2012 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

How will Israel’s 33rd government look? Let the post-election mathematics begin.

For starters, it should be noted that Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Liberman’s Likud-Yisrael Beytenu list is clearly best positioned to head a stable government. It is therefore almost certain that President Shimon Peres will ask the incumbent prime minister to try to build a coalition first.

While a meager 31 seats for Likud-Yisrael Beytenu does not give Netanyahu the strength he was hoping for, he has little to fear from his new Knesset colleagues and rivals. Even if Yesh Atid (with 19 seats) teamed up with Labor (15 seats), Hatnua (6 seats), Meretz (6 seats) and Kadima (possibly 2 seats), the center-left bloc would still fall a dozen mandates short of even a slim majority. And it is very unlikely that such a bloc would be joined by either an Arab or an ultra-Orthodox party. For that matter, the center-left parties would most likely be unwilling to pay the political price the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties would demand.

So, however weakened, and however spectacular Yesh Atid’s rise, Netanyahu is in the driver’s seat.

Conventional wisdom has it that Netanyahu will seek first to partner with the right-wing and the ultra-Orthodox parties, as he has done in the past. Shas and United Torah Judaism are often referred to as Netanyahu’s “natural” partners, and both lists have already signaled they are eager to join his coalition. The prime minister also reportedly expressed his willingness to invite them to build a government together, offering to open coalition talks with Shas’s Eli Yishai on Thursday.

But with almost all of the votes counted, Likud-Beytenu, the Jewish Home party (11 seats), Shas (wobbling between 11 and 12 seats) and United Torah Judaism (7 seats) were headed for just 60-61 seats — a tiny majority, if that, in the 120-seat Knesset.

Quite apart for the near-impossible weakness of such a coalition, its makeup of right, far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties would not look good abroad, as it would likely leave no room for any progress with the Palestinians and put Israel on a collision course with the US and the rest of the international community.

Indeed, Netanyahu said late Tuesday that he wants to create a wide government. Therefore, he might seek a coalition that also includes Yesh Atid — not only to have more wiggle room (that is, not to be subject to political blackmail by Shas or UTJ) — but also to look more moderate to outside onlookers and more moderate-minded Israelis. Yet Yesh Atid’s secularist chairman, Yair Lapid, is unlikely to join a coalition that includes both of the ultra-Orthodox parties. Also, any coalition that would include Shas and especially UTJ would hardly agree to push through a law that would draft the Haredim.

Nonetheless, this might be Netanyahu’s favored coalition. The question is how effectively Lapid might either resist it, or seek the guarantees that would enable him to join it without betraying his platform. With 19 seats, Lapid has quite some leverage.

Another slightly amended option: Likud-Beytenu, Yesh Atid, Jewish Home and only one of the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Alternatively, Likud-Beytenu could partner only with Yesh Atid and Jewish Home. Such a constellation would also mean Netanyahu having to survive on a razor-thin majority of 61 seats, but it would be one without any Haredi parties, and this would enable the government to finally legislate for universal conscription. Both Jewish Home chief Naftali Bennett and Lapid have made plain their readiness to join a government led by Netanyahu. If Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua were to join as well, a stable center-right government with 67 seats could emerge. Kadima might also join (if it holds on to its wobbily projected 2 seats). But Livni would want to take steps to energize talks with the Palestinians; Netanyahu might not.

Another scenario is conceivable, though more remote: Netanyahu could reach out to Jewish Home, Yesh Atid and Kadima. The four parties, which together would have 63 seats (if Kadima hangs on), agree on the need to equalize the national burden and enlist Haredim. However, a previous coalition agreement between Likud and Kadima last year collapsed soon after it was signed, as the two sides could not agree on the terms for the draft.

Pundits at the time said Netanyahu did not want to antagonize the ultra-Orthodox parties ahead of the 2013 elections. Now, he might be ready to do so. But if so, why has he first reached out to Shas?

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