As both the Kadima and Likud parties claimed victory in this week’s Israeli election and scrambled to assemble a coalition government, some analysts suggested that Israelis may be heading back to the future with both parties rotating leadership of the country.
Both Likud, a right-wing party, and Kadima, a centrist party, immediately rejected the suggestion and asked the other to join their coalition government.
“I’m not a great champion of rotation,” said Zalman Shoval, a senior member of the Likud Party. “The last time it was done, both the Labor and Likud parties were big. That is not the case now; they need lots of other parties to form a coalition.”
The only other time Israel had a rotation government was in 1984 when the Labor Party’s Shimon Peres served as prime minister for two years and the Likud Party’s Yitzhak Shamir completed the four-year term.
With 99.7 percent of the votes counted, Kadima had a narrow lead over Likud with an apparent 28 seats in the 120-seat Knesset; Likud had 27 seats. And in a surprise to many, the third largest vote getter was Yisrael Beiteinu, the right-wing party headed by Russian immigrant Avigdor Lieberman. It was expected to win 15 seats, pushing aside the venerable Labor Party that had dominated Israeli politics for the first 30 years of nationhood. Labor was expected to get only 13 seats, followed by Shas with 11, United Arab List five, United Torah Judaism four, National Union four, Hadash four, Meretz three, Bayit Hayehudi three, and Balad two.
Still to be counted are the votes of diplomats abroad and soldiers. The final results will not be released until Feb. 18.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor from Bar-Ilan University, said that because the number of votes separating Likud and Kadima is fewer than the number of uncounted votes and because Likud may get another seat in fractional counting, both Likud and Kadima could end up tied for the most number of seats.
“Everything is open,” he said when asked about the possibility of a rotation government.
“It’s a mess,” said Steven Spiegel, a political science professor at UCLA.
He said that without a clear-cut win by one party, negotiations to assemble a coalition government would take some time. He too said a rotation government in which Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni serves as prime minister for two years and Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu serves for the other two years might be the way to resolve the situation.
“Almost no one thinks that Tzipi can form a government unless Netanyahu is ready to go in with her on a two-year, two-year arrangement,” Spiegel said. “Labor would agree [to join the coalition], which is possibly the most likely scenario unless Kadima or Labor is ready to subordinate itself to Likud and possibly even align with Lieberman under Netanyahu. I don’t see that the numbers are there for a right wing government either.”
Avraham Ben Tzvi, a political science professor at Haifa University, likened the election results to that of the 2000 U.S. Presidential election in which Al Gore won the popular vote but George W. Bush became president because of the advantage he had in the Electoral College.
“The situation is fraught with contradiction,” he said. “In terms of legitimacy, Livni won the vote – it was vote of confidence. But in terms of forming a new government, the center moved to the right slightly.
Obviously it will be much more difficult for her to form a new government. Even though Lieberman is not as hawkish as he appears to be on strategic and foreign policy, he’s closer to Netanyahu in terms of his base of support.”
Morchechai Kedar, a Middle East expert at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said he also does not foresee Livni being able to put together a government, just as she was unable to do so last October.
After being elected chairman of the Kadima Party following the September resignation of Ehud Olmert, Livni tried for more than six weeks to form a “narrow” coalition government. But she finally gave up, explaining: “I am tired of blackmail.” She complained that the demands of several parties, including Shas, were “impossible” and that she feared the continuation of the talks would harm her political image.
“Nothing has changed since then,” Kedar said.
In remarks to his supporters at his campaign headquarters on election night, Netanyahu insisted that he would be the next prime minister.
“The Israeli people have said their word in a clear fashion: the nationalist bloc led by Likud won a clear victory,” he said.
But Steinberg said that Netanyahu did not speak like a man who was prepared to form a “narrow right-wing government” that would be unable to work with an American government bent on forging peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
“The language he used was not the language of someone who wants that,” he said, noting that Netanyahu spoke of the various problems the country faces and asked Livni to join him in dealing with them.
Steinberg said he believes that the only difference between a government led by Livni, who would become Israel’s first woman prime minister since Golda Meir in the 1970s, and Netanyahu is “who will be the top dog.”
“In terms of policy, there would not be much difference,” he insisted. “They would both be operating within the Israeli consensus, which is keeping the settlement blocs, demanding that the Palestinians accept no right of return, workable arrangements regarding the future of Jerusalem, and the need to deal with the Iranian threat in all its parameters.”
Both Livni and Netanyahu said they would like Yisrael Beiteinu to join their coalition, but Lieberman declined to support either party Wednesday night. By the morning, Livni was already talking with Lieberman, presumably about his conditions for joining her government.
Spiegel said that were Likud to include Yisrael Beiteinu in its coalition, “the government would become an international pariah and Netanyahu would be destroyed.”
He was referring to the fact that many view Yisrael Beiteinu as a racist party because it advocates requiring that Israel’s 1.2 million Arab citizens take a loyalty oath in order to retain their citizenship. In addition, it favors a peace settlement with the Palestinians but only in conjunction with a population transfer of Israel’s Arab citizens to a future Palestinian state.
Steinberg said he foresees a coalition government that includes Likud, Kadima and Labor and in which Netanyahu would serve as finance minister, Livni would remain as foreign minister and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak would remain as defense minister.
“That would give them about 70 seats,” Steinberg said, noting that 61 are needed to govern and that some Labor Party members might not agree to join the coalition.
With most Israelis voting for right-leaning parties — they would get about 64 seats compared with about 44 for the center-left parties — Steinberg said Netanyahu has a better case in arguing that he should be the next prime minister. He said that Netanyahu might opt to include Yisrael Beiteinu in his coalition, but only if Lieberman was not given a key policy role.
Yisrael Beiteinu’s surprise showing came from the fact that Lieberman has been complaining for a number of years that “Israeli Arabs cooperate with terrorists,” Steinberg said.
Stephen P. Cohen, a national scholar at the Israel Policy Forum, said Lieberman’s strength sapped votes from Likud, which at one point was 10 seats ahead of Kadima in Israeli opinion polls. But he also said that Kadima’s surprise showing was an indication that “a substantial number of [Israeli voters] want to deal with American leaders who want to make peace.”
Cohen suggested that another reason Likud kept slipping in the polls was because Netanyahu ran a poor campaign.
“He did not include everyone [in the party] in the campaign and he spent a lot of money on the Internet” to emulate the successful campaign of Barack Obama, he said. “And he abandoned the work that is necessary on the ground during the last days of the campaign to get people out to vote. He didn’t have any money left to get out the vote. In a way, it was more like Hillary [Clinton’s campaign] than Obama’s.”
A strong get-out-the-vote effort was also crucial because it rained in much of Israel on Election Day. The next morning at the Malcha mall in Jerusalem, all discussions seemed focused on the election results and the mood was mostly somber.
“I’m frustrated. We’re not here, we’re not there. We’re in limbo,” said Tzachi Giat, the 40-ish owner of a car rental agency.
Waiting for a glass of soda water at a mall coffee shop, Giat said Israel’s election system needs an overhaul. The current system, he said, enables several parties to win seats and demand concessions through horse-trading.
“There are too many parties and they’ll all have demands, most notably money. How can you responsibly form and government and run a country like that?” Giat asked irritably.
Ita, the owner of a hat store in the mall, agreed.
“I wanted Bibi, but not this way,” said the 50-something Tel Aviv resident, who declined to provide her last name. “He’ll have to woo various parties in order to form a government and he’ll lose any power to rule in the process. You’ll see, the next government won’t have much strength and will fall before you know it. Then the process will start all over again.”
Ita added that she didn’t feel comfortable voting for Livni “even though she’s great and I would have loved to see a woman as prime minister. I just think she lacks the necessary experience.”
Yisrael, a fervently Orthodox young man in a black suit and black velvet kipa, said he could not vote because he is just shy of 18.
“Given the chance, I would have voted for United Torah Judaism because our rabbis told us to support the party,” said the yeshiva student. “I support Bibi more than Livni because she’s said some anti-religious things. But I’m most concerned about Lieberman because he’s totally anti-religious. His being secular doesn’t bother me. It’s the fact that he wants to weaken the religious character of Israel.”
Sitting on a bench, changing his newborn daughter’s diaper, 27-year-old Yanai Kranzler said he voted for the Green/Meimad Party led by Michael Melchior.
“My sense was that when it comes to diplomacy and security, the big parties were more or less on the same page,” said Kranzler, a native of Riverdale who now lives on Moshav Bar Giora on the outskirts of Jerusalem. “Someone recently said that it’s better to vote for someone good than for the lesser of two or three evils.”
But Maya Jacobs, a spokeswoman for Kadima, said that because the vote count gives Livni party the edge, it has the right to form the next government and believes it will succeed.
“The people of Israel said they prefer Kadima,” she said. “Now we call on Netanyahu to be honest with the people and to realize that this is what the people want. Our campaign was better and [Livni] is geared up to be prime minister. She is the only candidate who offers a centrist government.”
Steinberg said the Kadima Party, which was formed in 2005 by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a centrist party that would attract leaders from other parties, has now become the “new centrist, Zionist, pragmatic” party that was originally built by David Ben-Gurion. Livni, he said, has “saved the party, doing better than anybody had expected.”
With reporting by Israel correspondent Michele Chabin in Jerusalem and Joshua Mitnick in Tel Aviv.