The turnout in Israel at the ballot box was high on Tuesday, but now it all comes down to the real election, consisting of one man’s vote. That would be President Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin, who decides whether to offer the chance to put together a governing coalition to Likud’s Bibi Netanyahu or Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog.
The two parties finished in a near-tie. Given Israel’s complex election system, which requires a ruling coalition to have at least a majority of the Knesset’s 120 seats, Netanyahu has the advantage of being able to more easily bring together a like-minded grouping of parties adding up to 61 seats. They would be on the political and/or religious right and include Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi, which favors the settlements; Yisrael Beiteinu, also on the right; and Shas and United Torah Judaism, two charedi parties more interested in funding for their institutions than speaking out on the Palestinian crisis or a number of other issues.
Herzog, if asked to form a government, would have a more difficult time because he would have to convince parties on the political left and religious right to sit together when several of their leaders have vowed they would never do that. For instance, the charedi parties and Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, who pushed through legislation that calls for drafting yeshiva students into the army, are like oil and water. And the same goes for Avigdor Lieberman of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu and the leaders of the left-wing Meretz.
For a variety of reasons, Rivlin prefers to have a national unity government emerge, pairing Netanyahu and Herzog. And while neither would admit it, that unlikely combination might just benefit both of them, though it could take up to three months until a government is formed.
“Bibi and Bougie” (Herzog’s nickname, pronounced with a soft “g”) has a nice ring to it, even if the two men hardly make for a natural pairing. Netanyahu’s persona projects strength and certainty, and he sees his role as protecting Israelis from an increasingly hostile world. Herzog is mild of manner, conciliatory by nature (he surprised many by offering to rotate the premiership with Livni should they win, though that deal is now off) and bent on repairing Israel’s relationship in the international community, starting with Washington.
Netanyahu, on falling behind in the polls, said publicly and bluntly that he wouldn’t join a unity government and share the top spot. “It must be prevented,” he asserted on the eve of the election. But politicians in general, and Bibi in particular, can have a short memory when it serves their interests.
Herzog would be eager to answer the call; it would thrust him into the top echelon of national leadership. As for Netanyahu, it would be difficult for him to reject the president’s plea for the Zionist Union and Likud to join forces for the good of the nation. Netanyahu may even be relieved with the compromise, freeing him of pressure from the hard-core rightists who limited his options in the current coalition.
At that point the question would be whether Netanyahu and Herzog rotate in the top spot, each serving two years as prime minister. And if so, who goes first. (That would be critical, given how rare it is for an Israeli coalition to last a full four-year term. And keep in mind that the next two years coincides with the rest of President Obama’s term.)
However they divide the premiership, if indeed they do, it would seem logical for Herzog to focus on the Palestinian front, putting a more positive face on the Israeli effort to improve the situation with the Palestinian Authority, if not resolve it. And Netanyahu would maintain the Iran portfolio, keeping the pressure on the U.S. and its allies in their dealings with Tehran. (Note, though, that the crucial end-of-March deadline for the current round of Iran negotiations comes during a caretaker Netanyahu government; he and other Israeli leaders will be distracted by their own political situation.)
Kingmakers: Lapid And Kahlon
Much has been written about the change in election laws this year that raised the threshold for parties to gain Knesset seats, from two percent of the votes cast to 3.25 percent. That’s a welcome change, eliminating the situation where parties with one, two or three seats can play an inordinately important role in determining the makeup of the coalition. Now, parties in the Knesset will have at least four seats.
That means Yair Lapid, who was the surprising success of the last election, and Moshe Kahlon, who broke with Likud to start his own party, Kulanu, last December, are the potential kingmakers now. Both have focused on economic and cost-of-living issues — a sore point for Netanyahu, which caused him to panic — and they will be wooed by both Herzog and Netanyahu. Indeed, Netanyahu already offered the finance ministry to Kahlon (he won 9-10 seats in Tuesday’s election) if he would join Likud prior to the election. But Kahlon, who is popular with the public for his role in reducing the cost of cellphone service, declined. (Former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren was on Kahlon’s ticket and won a Knesset seat.)
Lapid, who garnered 12 seats Tuesday, and Kahlon together have the will and potential to insist on a coalition that keeps out Naftali Bennett on the hard right; Meretz, on the far left; the consolidated Arab parties; and the charedi parties, with whom Lapid has vowed not to sit.
(After the last election it was Bennett and Lapid who made a pact to stick together in joining the Netanyahu government. In an interview with The Jewish Week last year Bennett described the relationship as “a Thelma and Louise” deal, since they were prepared to go over the edge together rather than be split up, he said. It worked. At least for awhile, until their differing ideologies trumped their partnership.)
Raising the election threshold prompted Israel’s four Arab political parties to join forces for the first time rather than see none of them win Knesset seats. The new Joint List, which emerged as the third largest party, would be sympathetic at times if Herzog led the government and in full opposition if Netanyahu has the top spot. If Likud and the Zionist Union form a national unity government, the Joint List could become the official opposition party in Israel, giving it a high profile and underscoring the reality of Arabs constituting about 20 percent of the country’s population.
Until now most Israeli Arabs have chosen not to vote in parliamentary elections, feeling marginalized. The Joint List, which won 13 seats Tuesday, will not be invited to join a coalition government and would refuse if invited, viewing all the other parties as Zionist and therefore ideological adversaries. But it could play an important role from the sidelines and is sure to highlight the concerns and complaints of Israeli Arab citizens.
Fewer Party Favors
Another new election law has received little attention, but will emerge as significant now. It calls for a reduction in the number of ministers and deputy ministers in the next government. No more than 18 ministers and four deputy ministers will be allowed, and there will be no ministers-without-portfolio.
This, too, is a welcome improvement in a democratic system that is still dysfunctional because it gives relatively little power to the prime minister. He or she must spend far too much time politicking within the coalition to keep the differing party personalities and ideologies at bay.
The practical result of the new law is that it cuts down on the number of ministerial positions that can be given out as incentives for joining the coalition. The outgoing Netanyahu coalition had 22 ministers and eight deputy ministers at one point; the 2009 government, the largest ever, had 30 ministers and 10 deputy ministers.
With fewer party favors (literally, and pun intended) to distribute, the promises made and broken on joining the coalition may reach new levels.
Asked about how constraining the new law will be, Yossi Klein Halevi, the thoughtful Israeli journalist and author told me, with a laugh, “The thing about an Israeli law is that there can always be a new one.” He added: “Israeli politicians are endlessly resourceful.”
They will have to be especially imaginative this time because the stakes are so high — Iran, rocky relations with the White House, Palestinian stalemate — and the level of respect among the competing political parties so low.
Hold on, it’s going to be a bumpy road from now until the new government is formed.