As I write this, there is not much more than 24 hours until the polls open in Israel. For many months, most of us who follow Israeli politics closely have concluded, resignedly or otherwise, that Bibi Netanyahu will emerge as Israel’s next Prime Minister, succeeding himself for a third term. However, unlike the norm in American elections (2000 excepted), the shape of the next Israeli government only starts to take place after the votes are counted.
What can we expect?
The most likely outcome is more of the same, only worse. The safe money would be on Bibi’s Likud Beiteinu getting around 32-35 seats (“mandates”). If so, he might first seek to get the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party Yahadut Hatorah (around 5 seats) and the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party Shas (9-11) on board his nascent coalition. If so, that gives him 45-50 mandates to start with, within striking distance of putting together a governing coalition.
Now he has the choice of moving towards the center (less likely) or moving towards the right (more probable). We’ll look at the former first. The venerable Labor party, whose leader, Shelley Yacimovich, has declared it a centrist and not a “leftwing” party, has promised not to enter a coalition with Netanyahu. Labor may get 15-18 seats. She may – or may not – keep her promise; either eventuality is not unknown in politics.
However, the center is more crowded than usual with parties. Tzipi Livni’s no-name party (officially Hatnuah – “The Movement”) has run on a policy of negotiating with the Palestinians, something Bibi is officially in favor of. However, he doesn’t like her – and refused to allow the party she formerly headed – Kadima – to join his coalition after the 2009 election. His other centrist option is also new – Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, which has run on promising more breaks for the middle class – and on drafting the ultra-Orthodox, a burning issue in the last few years. Yesh Atid may get 8-11 seats, but the ultra-Orthodox parties (which, in my scenario, Bibi already locked up) would likely balk at sitting with it. But stranger coalitions have emerged from such negotiations; still there would be a problem.
The other possible centrist party is Kadima, which was the largest party after the last election in 2009, with 28 seats, but now very likely will not get the minimal vote to get into the Knesset. If it does, it will only have 3 seats; not nearly enough to play kingmaker.
Assuming Bibi chooses none of these options, he must move towards his usual stamping grounds, on the right. The obvious choice is Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home) party, led by Naftali Bennett, the phenom of this election. Bennett is an “Anglo-Saxon,” i.e., his parents moved to Israel from San Francisco, and a high-tech millionaire. The party is known as ultra-rightwing and is often considered the party of the West Bank settlers. Bennett was once Bibi’s chief of staff, but had a falling-out with Bibi’s wife, Sarah, and has spent the campaign trying to siphon off votes from Likud Beiteinu’s right wing, seemingly pretty successfully. He is likely to get 15-18 seats, and thus dominate the space to Bibi’s right. He has dismissed the idea of peace with the Palestinians and is in favor of annexing part or all of the West Bank. If Bibi doesn’t go to the center he’ll have to woo Bennett, as unpleasant as that would be for him. It is hard to imagine squaring Bibi’s 2009 endorsement (under pressure) of the two-state solution with Bennett’s ideas on holding the territories forever. Nevertheless, this is a probable option. Bayit Hayehudi, the two ultra-Orthodox parties, and Likud Beiteinu will almost certainly have enough seats to push past the magic number of 61, which is a majority of the Knesset and would form a government.
There is a possibility of one or two other extreme rightwing parties getting past the threshold, who would be likely to join this constellation, but wouldn’t change its shape.
What have we forgotten? Ah yes, the left and the Arabs.
Meretz is the only remaining exponent of the Zionist left, standing for withdrawal from the territories, a two-state solution based on the 1967 boundaries, and social justice for Israelis. Thus, there is not the slightest chance of Bibi choosing it as a coalition partner or of Meretz showing the slightest interest in joining him. One of the more perplexing questions for those who read this piece is why it will probably only get 4-6 seats, up from its current 3, but surely not representing all those who believe in what it stands for. But that is to explore in a later column.
Then there are the so-called “Arab parties,” so-called a) because most Israeli Palestinians (who vote) will vote for one of them and b) because the large majority of their voters are Israeli Palestinians. There are 3 which have gotten into the Knesset in recent years and will probably do so this time: Hadash (the Communist party), Ra’am-Ta’al, and Balad. The first two are estimated to receive around 5 seats each; Balad, if it passes the threshold, will probably get 3. No “Arab party” has ever been part of a governing coalition. Voting rates of Israeli Palestinians have dropped significantly in recent years because many see no point in voting. A new Arab-Jewish party, Da’am, led by a dynamic Arab woman, is one of many seeking their votes, but it will probably not reach the threshold.
This is the bleak aftermath of Tuesday’s election that we are likely to see. Of course, the pollsters and I could be completely off, in which case I will consider eating whatever item of apparel is suggested to me. But these are the possibilities and, unless a deus ex machina who just won an election of his own decides to throw the full faith and credit of the USA behind Israeli-Palestinian peace, Bibi and the far right will be running Israel for the next few years.