Political Arithmetic: Predicting Israel's next government

There are two realistic scenarios which could materialize after election day: a Likud-led coalition or a Labor-led coalition.

Wide view of the Knesset (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Wide view of the Knesset
Israel’s political system can be dynamic and unpredictable. Parties with broad public support one year can collapse the next. Politicians can start off on the Right and move to the Left without batting an eye. Factions can be broken apart by scandals or bolstered by unfolding geopolitical events. It is a country where cottage cheese and tents can shape the polls as much as missiles and wars. This is what makes Israeli politics an enigma.
Prior to the previous election, I suggested the composition of the Knesset: A Netanyahu-led government, with Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi on the inside and the haredi parties on the outside. This year’s election is even less certain, with a strengthening Left bloc posing a legitimate challenge to the Right’s dominance. In addition, there are an extraordinary number of nimble parties that could be enticed into joining either a right- or left-wing coalition.
There are two realistic scenarios which could materialize after election day: a Likud-led coalition backed by Bayit Yehudi, Yisrael Beytenu, Koolanu, Shas and United Torah Judaism (approximately 66 seats); or a Labor-led coalition backed by Yesh Atid, Koolanu, Meretz, Yisrael Beytenu and Shas ( approximately 63 seats).
THE LIKUD-led government seems to be a natural alliance. Likud and Bayit Yehudi were two of the last remaining members of the previous government and have a proven track record of being able to work together. Koolanu leader Moshe Kahlon is a Likudnik at heart, and was indeed one of that party’s most popular ministers before breaking ranks and forming a splinter party. Yisrael Beytenu was actually integrated into the Likud in the previous coalition and the two remain closely tied. Shas and UTJ, the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) representation, have been natural allies of Netanyahu and were only left out of the previous government due to the insistence of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, whose platform runs opposite the haredi agenda. This government would essentially be a copy of the previous one, excepting a substitution of Yesh Atid for the haredim.
If this scenario were to materialize, Israel would be led by one of the most right-wing and religious governments in decades. This is a government that would support West Bank settlements and attempt to place the Palestinian issue on the back-burner. On the social front, it would be strongly capitalist, and activists lobbying for increases in social welfare might be sorely disappointed.
It would also be more partial to haredim and would likely scrap ideas of evenly distributing the burden of military service among Israel’s population segments. In the international arena, this government would be fiercely confrontational about a number of issues, among them Iran and the BDS movement, and would likely encounter friction with Washington, at least in the final two years of US President Barack Obama’s term.
THE SECOND realistic scenario is a Labor-led government propped up by a hodgepodge of left- and right-leaning parties. The Labor-Meretz-Yesh Atid alliance is a coherent secular-leftist force, yet these three parties together are not sizeable enough to govern. In order to build his coalition, Herzog would need to reach outside this formula. This is where his problem would begin.
First, Herzog would need to enlist the help of Kahlon’s Koolanu party.
Though at first this seems easy enough – both Labor and Koolanu have focused their campaigns on reducing the cost of living – their strategies for accomplishing this are opposite. Labor has traditionally focused on increasing social welfare programs and has close union ties, while Kahlon’s bread and butter has been in smashing monopolies and removing barriers to competition.
Kahlon has already expressed interest in the Finance Ministry, which might not be available in a Labor-led coalition as Herzog has already promised it to Manuel Trajtenberg.
Second, Herzog would need to convince the avowedly secularist Yesh Atid to sit in a coalition with the traditional kingmakers of Israel’s political system: the haredi Shas party. Though at first glance this scenario seems impossible, recent developments have increased the likelihood of this scenario occurring.
Aryeh Deri’s victory over rival Eli Yishai for the leadership of the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party was also a victory for the Left bloc. Unlike Yishai, who is right-wing on foreign policy issues, Deri actually leans Left on a number of important issues; socio-economically, he is much closer to Labor’s positions than he is to Likud’s, and nobody should be surprised if he drags his right-wing voter base into a left-leaning coalition.
Lapid himself seems to be testing the waters of a Shas-Yesh Atid alliance.
“We made amends on a personal level, we had a fight on a personal level,” he said this month of his relationship with Deri. “As long as the equality in the sharing of the burden remains, we have no problem sitting with anyone.”
The third, and perhaps most serious, impediment to a leftist coalition is the rivalry between Meretz and Yisrael Beytenu. Meretz has been Zionist Israel’s most vocal and consistent proponent of peace overtures to the Palestinians, while Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman has taken every opportunity as foreign minister to censure Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“[Meretz leader] Zehava Gal-On is out of the question,” Liberman said this month about the possibility of his sitting with Meretz in a coalition. “There’s no common ground. There is no chance.”
Though Liberman has recently made headlines for espousing surprisingly leftist diplomatic views, the schism between these two parties might simply be too wide to mend.
Herzog would need to prove himself a particularly adept politician in order to make the dove and the hawk fly together under his leadership.
AS WAS already mentioned, Israel’s politics can be erratic and fluctuating. While today there seem to be only two realistic governing scenarios, there are still almost two months until the March 17 elections.
It is worth examining a number of other scenarios which could materialize in that time.
First, Koolanu and Yesh Atid could amalgamate. This would thrust either Kahlon or, more likely, Lapid, into a frontrunner position for prime minister. Both parties are capitalist, and both campaign heavily on socio-economic issues, making such a union natural. Such a scenario, however unlikely, might hypothetically spur further mergers, particularly of Likud and Bayit Yehudi.
Another scenario which could materialize is a national unity government, headed by either Labor or Likud. However, it is difficult to see how either Herzog or Netanyahu would invite their main political rival into a coalition unless they absolutely needed to. This political analysis shows that, as things stand now, either of them might be able to build a coalition without the other, rendering a national unity government highly unlikely.
Finally, this analysis has presumed that Eli Yishai’s Yahad Ha’am Itanu party will not pass the recently- raised electoral threshold. This could prove a mistake, as the party is trending upwards in recent polling and could very well become a player in the next coalition. If Yishai does manage to take his party past the threshold, it would be a victory for the right-wing bloc, as Yishai and Netanyahu are genuine allies on most foreign and domestic issues.
I PREDICT, even with two months remaining until the election, that:
• Labor will win the most seats in the Knesset and that Herzog will be asked to form a coalition.
• Herzog will be unable to form a coalition, being stopped by the refusal of Yisrael Beytenu to join. To make up the necessary seats, Herzog will appeal to UTJ, but will be rebuffed by them as well.
• Likud will then be asked to form a coalition, and will succeed by inviting Bayit Yehudi, Yisrael Beytenu, Koolanu, Shas and UTJ for a 66-seat government.
The author is working toward an MBA at the University of British Columbia. After making aliya in 2009, he served as a non-commissioned officer in the IDF’s Strategic Division. Since then, he has been a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post and other international media outlets. His areas of interest include Israeli politics and Middle Eastern affairs.