Israel’s Nationalists Could Be Kingmakers After Election

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can hardly govern without the Jewish Home party.

View of the Knesset in Israel, Jerusalem, April 8, 2009
View of the Knesset in Israel, Jerusalem, April 8, 2009 (Israel Tourism)

There is little doubt Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu will win reelection on Tuesday, but what coalition of parties should rule the Jewish state remains unclear.

Netanyahu’s conservative Likud, which has merged with the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, is expected to win a plurality of the seats in the new Knesset.

The more right-wing Jewish Home, led by former businessman and settler leader Naftali Bennett, may get as many as fourteen seats, making it almost impossible for Netanyahu to govern without it.

Labor’s prospects

Former journalist Shelly Yachimovich, who entered politics in 2006, appears to have revived Labor’s prospects. In recent polls, it comes in second to the ruling party with seventeen to eighteen seats, raising the possibility of it joining Netanyahu’s government.

The incumbent premier has been forced to lurch to the right in response to Bennett’s spectacular rise, however, which makes it more difficult for Yachimovich to justify a Labor-Likud pact.

In no poll do centrist and leftist parties collect enough seats to form a majority without either the conservatives or nationalists, so Netanyahu and Yachimovich may have little choice but to join forces if they want to govern without fringe parties — or, in Labor’s case, govern at all.

Centrist alternative

The prime minister would only have an alternative if the centrist parties led by Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister, and Yair Lapid, a television personality, win enough seats to give him a majority.

One recent poll has them at six and eleven seats, respectively. Neither has ruled out joining a conservative coalition. Both appeal to secular voters, unlike the Orthodox parties which Netanyahu has relied on to stay in power so far.

The religious right has threatened to defect and switch to Labor’s side if Likud votes to to lift an exemption on Orthodox young men serving in the military.

The centrists are also more in favor of austerity and liberal economic reform than the Orthodox parties, who fear that spending cuts will reduce state stipends for their religious institutions.

Israel’s government deficit rose to 4.2 percent of gross domestic product last year.

Settlers

Jewish Home campaigns on defending settlement construction. Bennett has said, “I will do everything in my ability, forever, to prevent a Palestinian state from being founded within the land of Israel.”

Labor and Likud are more willing to compromise to secure a peace deal, but both have pro-settlers among their voters.

Bennett seeks to reach those voters, warning of the danger of Netanyahu giving in to demands to make concessions for peace.

“A strong (Jewish Home) is the only way that Netanyahu will be able to withstand this pressure,” party candidate Jeremy Gimpel said during a debate in Jerusalem last week.

Many right-wing voters agree.

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