For all the confusion prompted by the near parity of Kadima and the Likud in Tuesday's election, and even before the final adjustments necessitated by Thursday's tally of soldiers' votes and the complex surplus-vote distribution system, one of the most critical pieces of arithmetic is straightforward. And it shows that notwithstanding Kadima's victory claims, and its leader Tzipi Livni's insistence that the people of Israel have given her their backing, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu can reasonably hope to build a narrow coalition majority with "natural" allies, and she cannot.
This puts Netanyahu firmly in the driver's seat on the road to becoming prime minister. And it places Livni - though she led her party to far greater success than some of its own optimists had anticipated and thus cemented her leadership hold - in the back seat. He can probably block her; she probably can't block him. That is not to say that Netanyahu has a smooth ride ahead. It may yet be eased a little when those last votes are calculated. Precedent suggests that the soldiers' votes are unlikely to boost the center-Left; they might well lift the Right, and perhaps Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu, which had stressed a shared burden of national service. Kadima, meanwhile, had foolishly signed a surplus-vote agreement with the Green Party, which failed to clear the electoral threshold, so it has nothing to gain there. But Netanyahu was speaking from the heart during the election campaign when he said he wanted to lead a broad government, with a range of Zionist parties from across the political spectrum. He doesn't want to have to rely on a narrow coalition, vulnerable to internal pressures and perceived both domestically and abroad as intransigent as regards progress with the Palestinians. Even forging that narrow coalition will be fraught with complications. As the first meetings of potential coalition allies began on Wednesday, the difficulties of finessing the conflicting demands were manifest. Chiefly, a narrow Likud-led coalition requires the fiercely secularist Lieberman and the Torah-driven Shas to put aside fundamental differences that go to the root of Jewish nationhood. At the same time, Livni is showing absolutely no sign of being receptive to the notion of a unity partnership with Netanyahu in which Kadima is the junior player; after all, she is claiming to have won the elections. And Ehud Barak - outflanked by the Kadima election strategists, who persuaded much of Labor's voting base to switch to Livni in order to thwart Netanyahu - has already announced that Labor is headed for the opposition. Despite having lifted the Likud from a dismal 12-seat showing in the 2006 elections, therefore, Netanyahu has good cause to lament the votes lost, especially to Lieberman, in the final stages of this campaign. The advantage is still with him, but building the framework for a viable coalition will be immensely complicated. Hence, for a start, the selection of the wise, experienced former justice minister Yaakov Neeman to coordinate his coalition negotiations. Neeman, it will be recalled, pioneered an innovative if ultimately abortive effort to involve teachers from all streams of Judaism in the conversion process and has particular expertise in seeking common ground amid conflicting approaches to the interface between religion and state. It is precisely in this fraught territory that Shas and Israel Beiteinu will have to be reconciled if Netanyahu is to construct his "blocking" coalition.