S hould Israel’s two major parties decide to form a unity government following Tuesday’s election that saw neither party deliver a knockout blow, it could help heel tensions with the Obama administration and members of Congress, according to political observers.
With exit polls by Israeli television stations putting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party in a virtual tie with opposition leader Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union, there were increasing calls for the formation of a national unity government.
The first came from Israeli President Reuven Rivlin within minutes after the polls closed and the exit polls were released
“I am convinced that only a unity government can prevent the rapid disintegration of Israel’s democracy and new elections in the near future,” he said.
And Likud officials were quoted in the Israeli media as saying they believed Netanyahu would strive to form such a government with Herzog.
“Netanyahu had a mandate to lead after the last election, but this time there will be a lot of pressure for a national unity government because it will be the only way for a stable government,” Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, told The Jewish Week. “Otherwise, there will be new elections again and again.”
A national unity government would be “good for Israel internally because the country is divided and polarized, partly because of all the foreign money that has been invested in [fomenting] polarization,” he added. “This is a time for finding common ground and both Likud and Labor have to make significant compromises.”
Herzog is also head of the Labor Party.
But Shai Feldman, a professor of politics at Brandeis University, said he does not believe such a unity government can be formed because there is no common ground.
“What will the platform look like?” he asked. “Netanyahu’s strategy — especially in the last week — was classical Karl Rove: solidifying the base,” Feldman said. “Likud did much better than the opinion polls predicted because he took votes from the other right-wing parties. He scared right-wing voters into believing that if they did not support him, the president [Rivlin] would ask [Herzog] to form the next government. And he moved to the right by disavowing his Bar-Ilan speech [in which he said he favored a two-state solution]. Now how can he zag in the other direction and form a government with them after essentially disavowing everything he has said since Bar-Ilan?”
Reflecting on the election results, Feldman said: “It’s not a good outcome because it didn’t resolve the internal debate in Israel. The electorate created an outcome in which there is no governing coalition in the real sense of governing — that it can formulate policies can be adopted and implemented. And on the most important issues facing the country there will be a government without the ability to make decisions. …
The election did not create a virulent right-wing government nor one that has a mandate to take some risks for the sake of resolving Israel’s Jewish and demographic character by divorcing itself from the Palestinians. Neither camp is victorious; both came out wounded.”
Steven M. Cohen, a research professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, agreed that a national unity government is unlikely because he believes Netanyahu can form a government with ultra-nationalist and religious parties with the help of Moshe Kahlon and his newly formed Kulanu Party, which received 12 seats.
On the other hand, Cohen said, if Kahlon “decides to anoint Herzog as the next prime minister, it is within his power to do so. There is no question that he is the king maker.”
In fact, Cohen said a center-left government headed by Herzog would be more stable than a government headed by Netanyahu because his “ability to manage the foreign policy agenda in the face of international pressure may well break up the coalition.”
“Netanyahu spent two assets during this election: the goodwill of the American president and the image that Israel was seeking a two-state solution with the Palestinians,” Cohen added. “He no longer has those assets to manage foreign affairs going forward.”
But Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that although “clashes on the left and the right would have to be addressed” to be able to form a national unity government, “it may be in their interest to come together.”
Should the election results mirror the exit polls, Steinberg said the unity government formed might involve both Netanyahu and Herzog rotating as prime minister with each serving two years. He suggested that Netanyahu would serve first to give him time to accomplish things he believes important while Herzog waits in the wings “to learn the job.”
“He has never held a position like this,” he observed.
But Hoenlein said he could not see Netanyahu stepping aside as prime minister to allow Herzog to take over.
“There are a lot of options and it will take time to work out,” he added.
Peter Medding, professor emeritus in the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said he believes that it is up to Netanyahu whether to form a national unity government or a right-wing government.
“If he can get a stable government with his natural partners,” he would choose that.
The Zionist Union should then sit in the opposition and continue to build support, he said. Herzog noted that Labor’s showing in this election was its best since the 1992 election.
But Medding said the two parties might actually be able to work together to form a unity government.
It might work “if they can work together and have a combined program and cooperate with each other and have each other’s confidence,” he said. “In such a situation, Herzog might become defense minister and Tzipi Livni might be put back in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians with the understanding that Netanyahu would support them and not pull the rug out.”
Medding pointed out that there have been recent media reports that Netanyahu over the years has been prepared to make major concessions to the Palestinians in return for a peace agreement.
“A unity government would not just make American Jews happier, it would generate support in Congress after putting the Israeli government in the pocket of the far right wing of the Republican Party and polarizing the issue [of Israel]. Israel has to repair the relationship with the U.S. and Herzog and Livni could do that. Livni certainly could because she is seasoned and experienced.”
Reflecting on the election returns, David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said the “real winner in any election is democracy. I only wish Israel’s neighbors can learn from it.”