Little more than a week before Election Day, the polls show a close race between Likud and Zionist Union, with the two slates neck and neck in a series of recent polls.
That, at any rate, is how Zionist Union is talking about the race. It’s a convenient conceit. The Labor-led center-left under party leader Isaac Herzog hasn’t had such a strong showing for a generation. And merely the appearance that the party can offer a viable challenge to the incumbent Likud is itself an electoral advantage, attracting voters eager to send Likud packing.
There’s just one problem. Israeli governments aren’t composed of individual parties, but of coalitions that rarely contain fewer than four parties. So the winners of elections are not necessarily the largest parties, but the largest blocs. When the centrist Kadima party under Tzipi Livni won 28 seats in the 2009 election, it was Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud, with just 27 seats, who became prime minister because he could rely on the support of Yisrael Beytenu and other right-wing parties.
That’s why Likud insists it is handily winning the election. A left-wing Zionist Union-Meretz bloc is polling at roughly 28 seats. A right-wing Likud-Jewish Home bloc at 35, rising to 45 seats with the remaining explicitly right-wing slates of Yachad and Yisrael Beytenu. That larger pool of ideological allies means Likud’s path to a stable ruling coalition is shorter.
By law, the prime minister-designate can be any of the 120 newly elected MKs. He or she does not have to be the head of the largest party, or even the head of a party at all
But here, too, the political narrative is incomplete. There are other blocs outside the ideological left and right, and they make up 40% of the next Knesset, according to polls. The Joint Arab List has 12 seats, centrists Yesh Atid and Kulanu have 20 between them, the ultra-Orthodox Shas and UTJ 15.
In the end, no government can be formed without at least part of this middle ground, enough to give the ruling coalition a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
It is this fracturing of the electorate into 11 viable parties that may make this race a close one, despite the ideological right’s undeniable electoral advantage over the ideological left.
The better Zionist Union does on Election Day, the more the race will be decided by one man: President Reuven Rivlin.
There are three stages to an Israeli election: election for parliament, presidential selection of the prime minister, and coalition negotiations to form a government with a parliamentary majority.
The people of Israel only have a say in the first part. The third part is likely to be fairly easy, no matter who is selected for premier. Parties such as Shas, UTJ, Kulanu and Yesh Atid are eager to be in the government, no matter who stands at its head.
And so it is the second stage, the presidential selection of a prime minister, that is the great unknown of the race.
The president has few legal limitations in the selection process. Each party in the new Knesset can give the president its recommendation. If no candidate wins a parliamentary majority in recommendations, the president usually selects the leader of the largest party in the largest bloc. But by law, the prime minister-designate can be any of the 120 newly elected MKs. He or she does not have to be the head of the largest party, or even the head of a party at all. If the president believes a parliamentary majority might rally behind a back-bencher in a minor sectoral party, there is no legal restriction preventing him from giving that low-ranked lawmaker the first shot at forming the coalition.
When he made the decision in December to go to elections, Netanyahu did not fear the first stage. He believed there was little likelihood that the right-wing parliamentary bloc would fail to emerge larger than the left, or that his Likud party would not be the largest party in that bloc.
But Netanyahu is deeply worried about the second stage — a president who might exhibit more creativity than his predecessors in appointing a prime minister. Netanyahu had alienated both the haredi parties and the centrists, who might refuse to support his premiership. If these parties do not rally behind him, the choice may be left to the president.
For much of last year, two scenarios worried Netanyahu.
The first: If his own Likud party saw its chance to lead the next government threatened by the dislike of other potential coalition partners for their party leader, there was nothing to stop even Netanyahu’s own Likud from recommending for premier another candidate from their own ranks, a candidate such as then-interior minister Gideon Saar, the most popular politician among the party’s rank and file.
With the retirement of Saar from politics last fall, that scenario was taken off the table. There are no challengers in the current Likud slate with sufficient influence to attempt such a putsch.
The second scenario, however, remains intact, and haunts Netanyahu’s campaign.
It is this: that with no candidate winning the 61 recommendations for an outright appointment, the president may decide to force a national unity government.
Can the president do that? Yes, with surprising ease.
It is completely within President Rivlin’s constitutional rights to offer both Herzog and Netanyahu an ultimatum: agree to a national unity government, dividing the premiership by rotation, or see your opponent get the first chance at premier. The simple fact that so much of the next Knesset won’t be beholden to either left or right makes this a possibility, since Herzog would likely be able to gather together a coalition with nearly as much ease as Netanyahu.
But would Rivlin force his will onto grudging coalition partners?
Netanyahu think so. This was the fear that drove him to oppose Rivlin’s candidacy for president last year.
Herzog and Netanyahu have announced they would not sit in a government with the other — as though the choice is theirs alone
Pundits brushed this opposition off as the vestiges of personal animus between the two men over past disagreements connected to Palestinian prisoner releases, among other issues. It is true that Netanyahu and Rivlin don’t like each other, but Netanyahu likes Tzipi Livni even less, a fact that didn’t stop her from being his first coalition partner in the last government.
Netanyahu fought against Rivlin’s candidacy because he believes Rivlin may force on him unpalatable political alliances — and it didn’t help that Gideon Saar was running Rivlin’s campaign.
Meretz also thinks this is a likely scenario. “They’re already talking,” warns one Meretz billboard above the faces of Herzog, Netanyahu and Livni. Only a vote for Meretz, the party’s campaign cautions in nearly every ad, is a vote for a clear left-wing government.
Jewish Home is also convinced. “A strong Jewish Home is the only assurance of a strong right-wing government,” the party claims.
Herzog and Netanyahu have responded to these challenges by announcing they would not sit in a government with the other — as though the choice is theirs alone.
It’s impossible to predict what Rivlin will do after Election Day. But the widespread expectation that he will favor a unity government is plainly shaping the final days of the race.