Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be unpopular going into elections on Tuesday with his Likud party projected to win fewer seats than ever but the parliamentary arithmetic is still in his favor.
Since Netanyahu called snap elections in December, Israel has seen its first televised debate since 1999, the dissolution of a once ruling party (Kadima), the formation of two new parties (Kulanu, by former Likud favorite Moshe Kahlon, and Yachad, by former Shas leader Eli Yishai) and a new alliance between all Arab parties.
No less than eleven major parties could win seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, this week. The main question, though, is whether Netanyahu will succeed in winning a fourth term as prime minister or whether the once dominant Labor Party — now the senior partner in the Zionist Camp coalition — will lead a government again for the first time in fourteen years.
Given that no single party has ever won a majority in Israel’s 67-year history, what matters more than the number of votes a party gets is how many other parties it can work with.
Once the election results are in, President Reuven Rivlin will consult with the party leaders and decide who should get the first crack at trying to form a coalition.
That is likely to be Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog. His alliance with former justice minister Tzipi Livni’s centrist Hatnuah party is projected to win several more seats than Netanyahu’s Likud.
Although a veteran politician, Herzog is seen to lack charisma and thought to be a poor negotiator, evidenced by his agreement with Livni to rotate the prime ministership between the two of them. Analysts say his willingness to give so much power to the leader of a party with only six seats in parliament has set a dangerous precedent for talks with other parties. Moreover, it makes a “grand coalition” with Likud all but impossible. Israel could hardly have three “rotating” prime ministers.
Parties on the right are also still likely to win more seats than the parties on the left. Recent polls give the Zionist Camp, former finance minister Yair Lapid’s liberal Yesh Atid, the left-wing Meretz and the United Arab List around 55 seats together when at least 61 are needed for a majority.
The Arabs have also ruled out joining a government so Herzog and Livni would have their work cut out for them in trying to find suitable replacements. It is hard to see any of the party leaders on the right taking the risk of alienating their constituencies by joining a leftist government.
Kahlon is running on cost-of-living issues that might seem to call for left-wing policy solutions but his voters are largely drawn from Likud. Joining a coalition led by the left could spell an end to any ambitions he may have of ever returning to lead the Likud after Netanyahu’s eventual departure from political life.
Similarly, Naftali Bennet’s and Avigdor Lieberman’s conservative and nationalist voters would probably not welcome a coalition with the left. They also disagree with the Zionist Camp on economic issues, relations with the Palestinians and Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Finding common ground under these circumstances would be difficult.
Finally, there are the religious parties that have proven to be pragmatic in the past. But drawing them into a coalition with the Zionist Camp could come at the expense of Lapid’s support. One of the reasons he entered politics in the first place was to keep the religious parties out of government.
At any rate, Yishai has already ruled out joining a coalition with Herzog, stating that he will recommend Netanyahu to be the next prime minister.
Netanyahu, by contrast, has governed in coalition with all the right-wing parties before. He should be able to persuade them to give him another chance. But to get that chance, he must secure more than the twenty seats Likud is projected to win.
Netanyahu may not come out as voters’ top choice but he could still find himself safely tucked away in his current office with a renewed mandate and an even stronger coalition.