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Bibi Got Back

The results are in.

With a leading 31 seats in the new Knesset for his joint Likud-Beiteinu party, Binyamin Netanyahu will almost certainly remain Prime Minister of Israel.  His party is followed by 19 seats for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”), 15 seats for Shelly Yachimovich’s Labor Party, 12 seats for Naftali Bennett’s HaBayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), and 11 seats for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s Shas.  Smaller parties rounding out the new Knesset include United Torah Judaism (UTJ) with 7, Hatnua (6), Meretz (6), Hadash (4), United Arab List (4), and Balad (3).  Kadima, a powerhouse of the last Knesset with 28 seats, barely scraped together the votes needed for the minimum 2 seats to enter the 2013 Knesset.

Following the rules of Israel’s parliamentary system, 61 seats in Knesset are required to form a government.  As one party rarely garners 61 seats out of the 120-seat Knesset, the party with the most likely chance of forming a majority coalition is given the opportunity to form a new government with itself at the head.  This process takes weeks of wheeling and dealing among political parties as smaller ones ally with the larger in exchange for being put in charge of key government ministries.  This is the process Binyamin Netanyahu is undergoing right now.

At first glance, the balance of power seems to have shifted against Netanyahu and Likud.  Analysts gloatingly point out that despite Likud and Yisrael Beitenu’s  merger, this election reduced their collective total from 42 to 31 seats.  Among the left-wing parties, Meretz improved to 6 seats from its previous 3, Labor gained 2 seats to reach 15, and Tzipi Livni’s new party Hatnua received 6 seats; conceivably, these 11 seats gained by left-wing parties could represent the loss from Likud-Beitenu, and could indicate the Israeli public’s disapproval of Netanyahu’s right-wing government.

However, right wing parties exhibited strong gains as well.  United Torah Judaism gained 2 seats from its previous 5, and Naftali Bennett’s “Habayit Hayehudi” shot up 9 seats from its previous 3.  Together, these parties also represent an 11-seat gain.  As both the Left and Right blocs gained 11 seats, it is therefore just as likely that UTJ and Habayit Hayehudi drew right-wing voters away from Likud-Beitenu as the left wing parties having done so.

The largest enigma of the election remains Yair Lapid’s Centrist party “Yesh Atid”.  Lapid’s new party earned 19 seats in a dramatic turn, demonstrating many Israelis’ desire for a new direction.  Since Israeli centrist parties often ally with the left-wing bloc, analysts quickly counted the Knesset votes, and determined that the Right only narrowly won the election 61-59 against the Center-Left bloc.  As a result, early projections that a weakened Netanyahu would have to sacrifice on some of his positions in order to form a coalition government drawn from both sides of the aisle seemed correct.

However, Lapid proved a game-changer in his announcement the night after elections concluded.  Rejecting calls from leaders such as Yachimovich to join the opposition against Netanyahu, Lapid declared, “We will not be part of an obstructionist bloc with the Hanin Zoabis [leader of Balad, an Arab-Israeli party in Knesset that does not recognize Israel’s right to exist]."[1] In effect, Lapid essentially declared his support for joining Netanyahu’s government, pending negotiations.  Lapid’s policies largely jive with Netanyahu’s in the realms of foreign policy, national security and the peace process; he is wary of Iran, supports annexation of the main West Bank settlement blocs, and has even opposed Palestinian statehood.

After forming “Yesh Atid” in response to the 2011 protests against high cost of living in Israel, Lapid ran on a platform of socioeconomic reform including lowering food, housing, and fuel costs, and improvement of the electoral system.  As evidenced by his voter support, Lapid gained traction among many Israelis that felt their economic needs were being ignored by the current government while larger issues like Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Operation Pillar of Defense loomed.

Many of these socioeconomically-conscious Israelis also felt strongly about other recently divisive issues, particularly the lack of ultra-Orthodox enlistment in the army.  Lapid’s party reflects this growing pressure for equality in the armed forces, as many Israelis support ending Haredi exemption from army enlistment or national service as a result of their full-time Torah study, as well as their government benefits and subsidization.  After Israel’s Supreme Court struck down the Tal Law, which had legalized Haredi draft exemption, in 2012, legislators have been scrambling for a solution.  The Plesner Committee findings called for around 80% of Haredi men to enter national service or the armed forces, with exemptions for exemplary students, while fining draft dodgers and inducing a culture of shared civil burden among all Israelis.  Although it was not implemented, the committee findings serve as a model many Israelis wish to follow.  According to an Israel Hayom poll of Israelis across the political and demographic spectrum, “52% support the passing of a new law that would require service, either military or civil, of all yeshiva students, and another 30% support recruiting all except for a limited number of outstanding yeshiva students.”[2]

It would appear that Netanyahu and Lapid are a perfect fit; after all, Netanyahu has stated that his new government will also focus on lowering housing costs, electoral reform of the Knesset, and bridging the burden-bearing gap between ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis.  Between Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitenu, Yesh Atid, and Habayit Hayehudi, Netanyahu could already form a Right-Center government of 62 MPs, bringing in other parties to form a broader coalition at his leisure.  Theoretically, Netanyahu could form a coalition of up to 88 MPs with the Right bloc, Yesh Atid, Kadima, and Hatnua; such a strong government is desirable, as it would prevent his government from toppling should any one party choose to leave.  Nonetheless, Netanyahu still faces hefty challenges in forming such a large coalition, as competing demands and historical alliances will weigh in his decision of whom to include or exclude.

The largest impasse in choosing coalition sides remains the issue of Haredi enlistment.  Naturally, parties such as Shas and UTJ, whose constituencies include many ultra-Orthodox, vehemently oppose unilateral Haredi enlistment and entitlement reform.  This puts them at odds with Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid, who have agreed to only join Netanyahu’s coalition together, and both of whom demand equal service by the ultra-Orthodox.  At Netanyahu’s behest, Lapid seems amenable to including Shas in the coalition; however, in response to the threatening alliance of Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid, Shas and UTJ have formed a similar bond, in which neither party will enter a coalition without the other.  As a result, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Netanyahu’s coalition can include both the ultra-Orthodox parties and Bennett and Lapid’s parties.

The choice between them seems a no-brainer:  Shas and UTJ represent 18 seats total while Lapid and Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid collectively hold 31.  Yet Shas and UTJ have been allies of Netanyahu’s Likud party over the last two decades, and any good politician would think twice before destroying a longstanding relationship for the immediate benefit of courting Lapid.  Similarly, Lapid’s demands for joining Netanyahu’s coalition include bringing in Tzipi Livni’s “Hatnua” party; yet due to Livni’s desire to oversee and expedite the peace process with the Palestinians, Netanyahu may be wary of allowing her to enter his government in that capacity.  The addition of Hatnua would also require reconciling Livni’s and Bennett’s vastly different visions for the peace process, as Livni had called for immediate negotiations with the Palestinians, while Bennett supports unilateral annexation of large portions of the West Bank and has called Palestinian statehood a “catastrophe.”  Together, these factors of historical alliances, differing foreign policy agendas, and price of ultra-Orthodox enlistment will all significantly sway Netanyahu’s decision-making.

Nonetheless, as the electoral saga unfolds, Binyamin Netanyahu is quickly running out of options.  The Labor party is determined to remain in opposition to him, and needless to say, the extreme left-wing Meretz and Arab-Israeli parties would not touch a Netanyahu-led government with a ten-foot poll.  Assuming the Shas-UTJ and Habayit Hayehudi-Yesh Atid alliances persist, simple mathematics dictate that Netanyahu’s best opportunity to form a stable government lies in the hands of the latter; Lapid and Bennett remain his formula for success.

As evidenced by media hounding, the suspense over Netanyahu’s potential coalition partners is keeping everyone on the edge of their seats.  But once Netanyahu announces his partners for the new government, his Likud-Beitenu party will only have more difficult questions to answer:  “Mr. Prime Minister, how will you improve quality of life for Israel’s citizens?  How will you sustain economic growth in a global recession? How will you protect Israel from threats in the region?  And how will you bridge the massive divide in Israeli society over sharing of the military burden?”  While only time will provide answers to these questions, actions speak louder than words. Netanyahu’s choice of coalition partners will be a very telling hint as to his plans for the future of Israel.