Analysis: A decisive president's possible dilemma

What happens if Livni gets more seats but more party-leaders recommend Netanyahu build the coalition?

Peres 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Peres 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Shimon Peres was decisive Tuesday, urging Israelis to come out and exercise their democratic right to vote, and reminding them that the alternative to the ballot box is the bomb and the gun. He was decisive, in an opinion piece published in The Washington Post on election day, in restating the joint Israeli-Palestinian imperative for a two-state solution. "Having personally witnessed the remarkable progress we have made with the Palestinian Authority in recent years," he wrote, "I believe that a two-state solution is not only the best resolution to this age-old conflict but one within our reach." But the final election tally, which should be clear by the time he wakes up - very early, as is his habit - on Wednesday morning, may present a challenge even to the decisive president. Election legislation grants Peres considerable leeway when it comes to deciding which politician to charge with the task of forming our next coalition. And while tradition has always seen the head of the largest Knesset party given the first opportunity to do so, this election's results could present a fresh presidential headache. If Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud proves the polls right and emerges as the largest faction, heading a right-wing bloc with a Knesset majority, Peres, who will consult with the various party leaders once the official results are in, will be spared much deliberation and the man who lost power a decade ago will be given the presidential nod. Alternatively, if Tzipi Livni's Kadima maintains its final-days momentum, eases ahead of the Likud and, however improbably, Livni wins the prime ministerial recommendation of party leaders representing a Knesset majority, she will be given the president's authority to try to succeed where she failed just three months ago in building a governing coalition. Where Peres would have a certain dilemma is if the final tally shows Kadima as the largest party, but Netanyahu the favored prime minister of most of the new intake of MKs. Here, too, though Peres's decision should be relatively straightforward: Netanyahu would be given the first chance to build a government. That dilemma would deepen considerably, however, if Kadima is the biggest party, Netanyahu gets more support than Livni from the various party chiefs with whom Peres consults, but that support for Netanyahu falls short of the 61 seats that constitute a Knesset majority. Who, then, would the president choose to form a coalition? Would his path through these uncharted waters be informed by the fact that Livni's Israeli-Palestinian vision is far closer than Netanyahu's to his own? Which other factors might guide him? In this context, it is worth noting that neither Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu nor United Torah Judaism has publicly stated which would-be prime minister it will back. Lieberman, of course, has prime ministerial aspirations of his own. Should the president face this kind of dilemma, furthermore, it would underline the unworkability of the Israeli electoral system, which has gradually seen "big" parties losing support to the extent where, even in 2006, no single party won the backing of so much as a quarter of the Knesset and Kadima thus did not even hold a majority inside its own coalition. A repeat of that kind of splintered parliament, or a worsening of the phenomenon, would seem likely to condemn Israel to new general elections in the not-too-distant future, and to bolster the imperative for urgent electoral reform, with the system of pure proportional representation amended to feature at least a partial constituency vote. Then again, the need for reform was one of the conclusions drawn in 2006, and yet the outgoing Knesset could not even agree on so much as a slight raising of the 2 percent "threshold" for parliamentary representation.