Putting together Netanyahu’s next coalition might be trickier than it seems

Netanyahu will continue to serve as prime minister after the upcoming elections, but putting together a governing coalition will have significant long-term implications.

The headline result of the upcoming elections in Israel, as Noam Sheizaf has thoroughly documented, is not in doubt. Benjamin Netanyahu will continue as Israel’s prime minister for another term, and will strive to maintain his policy of status quo in every area of policy.

Nonetheless, there are at least two aspects of uncertainty in these elections. First, the potential for more significant changes in areas not related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (such as economic policy or secular-religious relations). Second, these election results could shape the dynamics of the following elections, in which a different outcome is certainly possible (especially considering the incredible volatility of Israeli politics over the past two decades).

To understand these elements of uncertainty, one must examine the different scenarios for post-elections coalition formation. Netanyahu will win, but like all of Israel’s previous prime ministers, his party will not have enough seats to form a government on its own.

The most natural composition of a Likud-led coalition would be what Noam has labeled the right-Orthodox bloc, which will almost certainly hold a majority in the next Knesset. Netanyahu has been reluctant to rely on this formation exclusively, which has brought him down for the slightest of compromises in his first premiership in the 1990s. But having this option would strengthen his hand in discussions with other potential partners.

Right now, the greatest threat for this scenario comes from two tiny parties, struggling to gain enough votes to reach the threshold necessary to get seats in the Knesset.

Am Shalem is an unconventional and hard-to-classify party, a splinter of the ultra-orthodox Shas party, which is nonetheless running hard against current ultra-Orthodox leadership, arguing for modernization in this community. It is likely to draw the majority of its votes from the right-Orthodox bloc, yet it is hard to envisage its participation in a coalition which includes the very parties it is running against.

The second tiny party is Otzma LeYisrael, a far-right party. It will take all its votes from the right-Orthodox block, but its prospects of joining the coalition are unclear. Netanyahu might balk at relying on such rabid extremists, and they could actually prefer the opposition, where they would not be tainted by compromise and could snipe at their slightly-less-hard-right colleagues at Likud-Beitenu and Habayit Hayehudi, helping them to grow in the next elections.

Right now, these two tiny parties seem unlikely to impair the right-Orthodox majority, which is poised to gain at least 64 (of 120) seats without them, according to +972’s Poll Tracker. However, when it comes to tiny parties, especially new ones such as these, the polls are structurally incapable of properly assessing their strength. Even the best polls have a margin of error of at least 3 percent, whereas these parties are struggling to get less than that.

Furthermore, the polls themselves may play a role in the result, as voters strategically wait to see if these parties can even pass the minimal threshold of 2 percent to get seats in the Knesset before deciding whether to vote for them. Indeed, this may be the main hindrance these parties face, as their message seems to be resonating with many voters. A late surge in the polls, even an erroneous one, could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and vice versa.

What happens if Netanyahu is denied the option of forming a stable right-Orthodox coalition, thereby greatly strengthening the bargaining position of potential partners outside the bloc? What would be his path of least resistance?

Hatnua, the dovish sui generis party of former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, will probably be at the bottom of his list. Despite being a former member of Likud, Netanyahu’s own party, Livni has positioned herself as the champion of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians, which would involve significant territorial concessions. Nothing could be further from Netanyahu’s mind. Livni, who has given up the prime minister’s seat in the past to maintain her principles, is unlikely to be tempted to give them up for the much more junior position that Netanyahu might offer in her return.

Yesh Atid, another sui generis party headed by political neophyte and media personality Yair Lapid, is a much more comfortable partner for Netanyahu. It will certainly not give him any headaches on the Palestinian issue. However, Lapid has promoted himself as the champion of the overburdened Jewish-secular middle class. The emblematic issues of recruiting the ultra-Orthodox to the military and getting them from the Yeshivas to the labor market are an important part of his political brand. If he insists on them, it might make him incompatible with the ultra-Orthodox parties – an essential partner for Netanyahu. If he folds on these issues, he would be the ideal partner.

The Labor Party presents a more complicated picture. On the one hand, its leader, Shelly Yachimovich, seems to be the best fit for Netanyahu. She has prioritized neither the Palestinian issue (on which she is much more to the right than Labor’s traditional positions) nor the religious-secular fissure.

Instead, her obsession is with economic policy, where she wants to significantly increase spending on social programs and increase taxes on the wealthy. Netanyahu, despite his neoliberal inclinations, has proven flexible on these issues, and he could certainly work on them with Yachimovich who is actually much more pragmatic than her firebrand image, and much more in tune on this issue with many Likud voters and backbenchers than Netanyahu himself.

However, unlike Lapid and Livni’s parties, which are likely to follow their leaders quite blindly, Labor is anything but sui generis. As Israel’s oldest party, by some counts, it is famously patricidal towards its leaders, and could as easily turn matricidal towards the second woman leader in its history (just as it did for its first, Golda Meir, caving to protests following the disastrous Yom Kippur War).

Already, Yachimovich’s right turn on the Palestinian issue is producing serious grumbles in the ranks. Most dissenters have chosen to ditch the party altogether for Livni, but enough have remained to make trouble for her and Netanyahu, should a coalition be formed. That is precisely what they did in the current Knesset when they drove out Labor’s previous leader, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, after he formed a coalition with Likud. Ironically, in that round, Yachimovich was one of the dissenters, and refused to sit in Netanyahu’s government, certainly not an auspicious omen for a Likud-Labor coalition re-make.

So, Netanyahu will certainly be prime minister, but the stability of his second term will be far less certain. A lot depends on two tiny parties, whose support is nearly impossible to estimate in advance, along with the major parties of the center-left bloc, all of which are running on untested platforms. An internally divided and discordant coalition could mean an opportunity for whomever remains in opposition, and could offer a compelling alternative to dissatisfied Israeli voters in the next elections.

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