While Herzog’s chances appear to be higher than they have been for most of the campaign season, he still faces an uphill battle to unseat Netanyahu in an election almost entirely devoid of debate on the issues.
For one of the first times in the current election campaign, the centrist “Zionist Camp” actually has a chance of ousting incumbent prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
In Israel’s parliamentary system, the premiership is held by the Knesset member who is able to form a coalition around him or herself. Almost no single party has been able to form a government without a coalition constituting a 61-seat majority of the Knesset.
In 2009, for example, Tzipi Livni headed the largest party but was unable to form a coalition of 61 or more members of Knesset to form a government, leading the way for Netanyahu’s second government.
The rise of centrist party Yesh Atid and most recently, Kulanu, the traditionally large Left and Right parties have shrunk, with both polling between 23 and 25 seats for the next Knesset. As explained here in my previous election analysis, the scattered power of smaller and medium-sized parties makes forming and holding together a governing coalition difficult, which is the reason cited by Netanyahu for calling new elections.
The allegiances of the newer centrist parties, much like the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties in the past, are expected to be less principled and could easily join either a left- or right-leaning government led by Herzog or Netanyahu, respectively. However, Lapid’s “Yesh Atid” is less likely to support a Netanyahu government and Moshe Kahlon’s “Kulanu” is more likely to join Likud, the party which he broke off from.
With the Zionist Camp and Likud virtually tied in the polls, the name of the game is coalition building. As it stands, either side could ostensibly form a government with the support of the ultra-Orthodox and one or more of the centrist parties.
A Labor government, according to the latest polls, could consist of: the Zionist Camp (24 seats), Yesh Atid (11 seats), Kulanu (eight seats), United Torah Judaism (seven seats), Shas (seven seats), and Meretz (five seats), for a total of 62 seats, just enough to form a government.
If you assume that the Arab Joint List will throw its support behind the formation of a Herzog-led government from the backbenches, then Herzog could ostensibly have the support of nearly 75 MKs.
A Likud government, according to the latest polls, could consist of: Likud (23 seats), Jewish Home (13 seats), Kulanu (eight seats), United Torah Judaism (seven seats), Shas (seven seats), Israel Beitenu (six seats), and at least part of Yachad (between two and four seats, assuming it passes the election threshold). The grand total for a possible Netanyahu government, therefore, could be between 64 and 68 members of Knesset.
However, even though the ultra-Orthodox parties and Kulanu may be willing to join a Herzog government, in all likelihood, they will probably support Netanyahu at the point when the president decides who is given the chance to form a coalition. In such a scenario, Herzog would have only 50-plus recommendations to form a government.
Herzog’s best chance for improving his chances is if Yesh Atid manages to continue climbing in the polls, stealing seats from Kulanu and the Likud, and by convincing the ultra-Orthodox parties to back him in the recommendation stage. Likud and the Right, however, are traditionally seen as more friendly to the religious population and may therefore have better chances at wooing the ultra-Orthodox.
So ultimately, while Herzog’s chances appear to be higher than they have been for most of the campaign season, he still faces an uphill battle to unseat Netanyahu. And in an election almost entirely devoid of a debate on the issues, and facing an incumbent whose biggest strength is political survival that may be a very difficult task.
A third option, of course, is that Herzog and Netanyahu could form a unity government. Doing so could offer the most politically stable government, but would also be dangerous for both men considering how it would alienate their respective political bases.