Netanyahu’s headaches may only just be beginning

If Israeli politics snap back to the pre-2000 balance, President Peres just might have significant influence over who forms the next coalition

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Four years ago: Then prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Shimon Peres to discuss forming a governing coalition, March 20, 2009 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash 90)
Four years ago: Then prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Shimon Peres to discuss forming a governing coalition, March 20, 2009 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash 90)

If the election is close, the decision as to who will lead Israel in the coming years may actually rest with President Shimon Peres.

Many believe the president is required by law to ask the head of the largest party to build the next government. That is not true. In fact, the president is expected to choose the next would-be prime minister — assuming that candidate can cobble together a governing coalition with a Knesset majority — based on the number of recommendations he receives from the heads of the newly elected party lists.

That’s the reason Netanyahu led the last outgoing government. He didn’t lead the largest party in the Knesset, but he won a large majority of the recommendations presented to the president.

While it is not likely that Netanyahu will fail to pass this stage, nothing is quite certain.

For one thing, it’s not clear that the “rightward surge” predicted in many media outlets is actually taking place. Rather, the new Knesset indicated by polls may resemble the classic Israeli right-left divide before the political upset of the Second Intifada and the creation of the strong center bloc with Kadima.

Consider the comparison to the 1996 elections, the elections that gave Netanyahu his first term as prime minister.

The Likud-Beytenu alliance is expected to be about the same size, 32 seats, as the Likud-Gesher-Tzomet alliance of 1996. The Jewish Home’s expected 12+ seats are a huge increase from the current figure of 3, but not so many more than 1996’s nine. Haredim may have risen from 14 to 17 and Arab parties from 9 to 11, but those are functions of declining turnout in recent elections as much as increased support. (1996 saw 79% turnout. 2009 saw 65%.) The fringe-right Otzma Leyisrael is the same size in polls — 2 seats — as Moledet, which carried that banner in 1996.

One major difference, though, is the fracturing of the left. In 1996, Labor and Meretz won 34 and nine seats respectively, a far cry from today’s expected 17 and 6. But when one factors in Hatnua, a party openly committed to offering concessions to the Palestinians for renewed negotiations, and Yesh Atid, the secular centrist party that inherited the mantle of Shinui — the same Shinui born in the 14th Knesset of 1996 as an outgrowth of Meretz — the overall map of Israeli political opinion still matches remarkably closely.

Another signal of a return to the past: voter turnout. From 1969 to 1999, Israeli voter turnout never dropped below 77% or went above 81%. It was very high and very consistent. In 2001, in the midst of the Second Intifada and, for many Israelis, the collapse of the peace process that had defined Israeli politics for the previous decade, turnout plunged to 62%. It has hovered at that level since, with 68%, 64% and 65% in the next three elections.

But turnout Tuesday was rebounding, even as the basic party distribution is snapping back into its traditional place. While it was too early to tell at time of writing whether the high mid-day turnout would be sustained till polls close, early voting showed a spike. The fact that at 4 p.m. Israel time 46.6% of the electorate had voted, represented almost 5% more than in 2009 and nearly 7% more than in 2006.

A relatively high final turnout may mean the actual vote well reflects the right-left balance shown in the last pre-election polls on Friday, with a narrow margin between the camps.

And all that means that Netanyahu may have to do some tricky maneuvering to guarantee his position. Faced with a credible option of choosing Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich over Netanyahu, Peres could be tempted to offer her the first shot at forming the coalition.

It’s unlikely, to be sure, but it’s not preposterous.

For one thing, Peres is widely known in the Israeli political establishment to be deeply opposed to Netanyahu’s policies, especially on Iran and the Palestinians, and to have told aides that he believes Netanyahu’s policies are dangerous for the country.

This is where the recommendations from the newly elected Knesset could come into play.

Netanyahu presumably has the recommendations of his own party, Likud-Yisrael Beytenu, and Jewish Home, bringing him some 44 seats’ worth of recommendations (again, according to the last pre-election polls). While there is a history of bad blood between Netanyahu and the Jewish Home’s leader, Naftali Bennett, Bennett doesn’t have another option that would see him sitting as a minister in the next government.

It is likely, though not certain, that Netanyahu would also win the recommendations of the fringe-right Otzma Leyisrael, if it enters the Knesset, and just possibly the centrist Kadima, if it squeezes in, bringing him to 48.

Labor’s Yachimovich, meanwhile, will almost certainly receive the recommendations of Labor, Hatnua and Meretz, and probably also the Arab and Arab-majority parties, bringing her number to some 42.

And that leaves the Haredim (17 seats between Shas and UTJ) and the Haredi sector’s political nemesis, the party calling for drafting them into national service and instilling math and English into their schools: Yesh Atid.

Shas’s Aryeh Deri has vowed time and again during the campaign that Shas would recommend Netanyahu. Deri was trying to draw traditional voters away from the Likud-Beytenu alliance by assuring them a vote for Shas was simultaneously a vote for Netanyahu and for Sephardi Jewish religious values.

But it was Deri who, as Shas leader, made deals with the left and stabilized Labor-led coalitions. And with draft exemptions for yeshiva students on the table, Shas’s votes may come at a price for Netanyahu, a price that could make securing Yesh Atid more difficult. Deri also said during the campaign that his party’s views on social issues were closer to those of Labor than Likud.

Will Netanyahu want to sacrifice his maneuvering room on the Haredi draft issue? Will a compromise on the issue agreed to by Shas be enough to bring in the less amenable UTJ? Can Netanyahu win the presidential pick without both Haredi parties? Lacking both, can he convince Yesh Atid and one of the Haredi parties to recommend him, each knowing that the other has negotiated on the recommendation?

The situation is still clearly Netanyahu’s to lose. He is much closer to the goal line of 61 recommendations than his opponent in Labor. And even a slight increase from Likud’s pre-election poll showing, or that of his natural coalition partners, would remove all doubt and all need to negotiate.

But for a few more hours, and just maybe longer than that, the presidential recommendation process remains a factor — and a bargaining chip for the uncommitted parties.

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