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Knesset Math: Playing the Coalition Game Reply

The elections are over – but what parties will Netanyahu choose as partners?

By Geoffrey Levin

Now that the votes in Israel are counted, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has begun the hard work of determining which parties will join his governing coalition. Though Netanyahu and Yair Lapid – leader of the second-largest party, the centrist Yesh Atid – both claim to want a broad coalition, is that necessary – or preferable for both leaders?

For starters, let’s look at the numbers:

Party/List         Knesset seats earned (out of 120)
Likud-Beitenu —  31
Yesh Atid —  19
Labor — 15
HaBayit Hayehudi  —  12
Shas  —  11
United Torah Judaism —  7
HaTnuah —  6
Meretz —   6
United Arab List-Ta’al —  4
Hadash —   4
Balad  —  3
Kadima —   2

* Likud has 20 seats, and Yisrael Beitenu has 11 out of the joint list’s 31.

Likud, Yisrael Beitenu, and HaBayit Hayehudi are all right of center, giving the right 43 seats. Add on the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, the religious and right wing parties – who now serve in the current government – in total have 61 seats – technically enough to make a coalition, but not a stable one. In contrast, the centrist parties (Yesh Atid, Kadima), center-left parties (Labor, HaTnuah), left-wing party (Meretz), and Arab parties (Hadash, Balad, and United Arab List-Ta’al) only have 59 – not enough to keep Netanyahu out of office, even if they tried.

It has already been decided that Yesh Atid and Likud-Beitenu will join together to form a coalition, with that two of them making 50. Though Shas and United Torah Judaism consider themselves natural partners with Likud, Lapid’s conditions of entry – which include forcing the ultra-Orthodox into the military or other national service – mean they will likely be out. Instead, the most natural fit is the rightist HaBayit Hayehudi. Though HaBayit Hayehudi, led by charismatic young settler Naftali Bennett, clashes with Yesh Atid on foreign policy, they can likely collaborate on many other issues on Lapid’s agenda.

Most likely, we can add on the two seats held by Kadima. The once-dominant centrist party, which barley passed the election threshold with a measly two seats, will likely be desperate to join any government. Odds are, Kadima will announced in the coming weeks that it will merge into one of the larger parties.  Though Kadima’s platform is closer to Yesh Atid’s, it remains quite possible that Kadima will instead merge with Likud. Haaretz editor Aluf Benn recently outlined why the merger would be a strategic asset for Likud, which, with only 20 seats, will be the smallest governing party in history; the addition on Kadima’s two seats would certainly make Netanyahu feel more secure. Yet those two seats may come at a high price. Mofaz felt betrayed by the Prime Minister after last summer’s failed attempt at military draft reform, and may only return to Likud if Netanyahu promises to appoint him as Defense Minister.

Yesh Atid, Likud-Beitenu, HaBayit Hayehudi, and Kadima all together make 64 – enough to form a coalition, by perhaps not broad enough for Netanyahu and Lapid’s liking. On the question of who else to invite, they appear to disagree, with Lapid pushing for Tzipi Livni’s HaTnua and Netanyahu hoping to invite the religious parties. The other question is – will these parties even accept Lapid and Netanyahu’s conditions for entry? It’s unlikely United Torah Judaism would ever accept joining a government that promises to draft the ultra-Orthodox, but rumor has it that Shas is willing to be more pragmatic: they’d rather influence the contours of draft reform from the inside than watch helplessly from the outside.

Were it Lapid’s call, his wisest move here would be to offer Shas an invitation, but make the conditions so unfavorable to the party that they’d be forced to decline.  That way, he keeps the ultra-Orthodox parties from blocking his efforts to enact draft reform – as they did last summer, and during Lapid’s father’s tenure – but also makes Lapid and Netanyahu appear less unfriendly to the ultra-Orthodox voters. But the decision is ultimately Netanyahu’s, and inviting Shas is in his interest. Not only would it broaden the government and make his seat more secure, it would ensure that the religious parties do not abandon Netanyahu in the next election. Inviting Shas also has its perils; the coalition would be larger, but also more apt to infighting — drama which could hurt Netanyahu down the road.

Labor and Meretz are officially out, considering themselves too leftist for the Prime Minister’s agenda, but Livni – who did far worse than she expected in the election – may feel vulnerable enough to join, backing down from her forceful pro-peace rhetoric. But Netanyahu’s own calculations, along with members of Livni’s own party, may stymie any desires she may have to join with Lapid. HaTnuah and Shas may both end up in the coalition – or may well not.

The choices that Lapid, Netanyahu, Livni, and the Shas leaders make will determine not only their political futures – they delineate the country’s political agenda, and will ultimately determine whether this coalition will be stable – or fated for an early demise.

For further analysis on the election – check out Levin’s related article in Tablet Magazine, “Who Will Be in Israel’s Next Cabinet?

Geoffrey Levin is a senior editor at The Jerusalem Review of Near East Affairs.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Matanya

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