A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Math Problem: Now What?

Math Quiz!

Okay, let's use Haaretz' figures with 100% of the vote tabulated. (These may not be the final, official, certified results, but should be pretty close.) I've taken the liberty of sorting the parties by bloc, which is a subjective thing but I hope properly informed (the characterizations are my own):

The 18th Knesset

Secular Right

(Netanyahu) 27
Yisrael Beitenu (Lieberman) 15
National Union (hard right of even of the two above) 4

Total secular right: 46

Religious Right:

(Sephardic religious) 11
United Torah Judaism (religious with Hasidic affiliations) 5
Jewish Home
(new name, but essentially the National Religious Party and allies, Ashkenazi religious) 3

Total religious right: 19


(Tzipi Livni) 28

Total Center: 28

Zionist Left

(Ehud Barak): 13
(to left of Labor) 3

Total Zionist Left: 16

Non-Zionist Left (traditionally only allowed in coalition if the coalition has a Zionist majority without them)

(Communist; Joint Jewish/Arab Party) 4
United Arab List (front of Arab parties) 4
Balad (Arab party; most radical of the three: its leader is in exile) 3

Total Non-Zionist Left: 11

Total: 120

Your mission, if you choose to accept it: come up with a 61-seat coalition that can govern.

Good luck with that.

A narrow left/center coalition does not seem possible unless one could include enough religious parties to form a majority, and history shows that Shas and Meretz, for example, do not play well together.

A narrow right coalition could govern, but if it included both Lieberman and National Union (a really hardline party) it would be something of a pariah with a lot of the outside world. Netantahu says he wants a unity government, but the secular and religious right together have enough seats to govern. But -- and this is a major but -- Likud and Yisrael Beitenu would still need at least two and preferably all three of the religious parties to form a rightist majority, and Lieberman, who's a secularist with some positions that are anathema to the orthodox, would probably encounter incompatibility problems with Shas in particular. A narrow right coalition is mathematically obvious, but politically would be vulnerable to feuds between the religious and the (largely secular) Yisrael Beitenu folks.

The logical solution is a unity government based on Likud and Kadima, but I already outlined the problems in getting there from here: with only a seat dividing Kadima from Likud, the first battle will be over who gets the first mandate to try to form a coalition. Both claim they want a coalition with the other, but of course with their own leader as PM.

Labor's Ehud Barak has made some remarks today suggesting Labor may stay out of a coalition led by either Kadima or Likud: the logic seems to be that Labor, if it is ever to recover its support base, needs to do so from the opposition benches. (I know, the Knesset sits in chairs; "benches" is a Britishism, but it gets the idea across.)

Go ahead and play with the math. Livni and Netanyahu certainly are. It's hard to avoid thinking of the case I already referred to, when Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir split the difference, one serving as PM while the other served as Foreign Minister, then exchanging positions. I'm not sure Netanyahu and Livni would go that route, because each is starting from a smaller electoral base than Peres/Shamir in 1984-1988.

Off the cuff predictions:

1) The most stable coalition would be one that includes Likud and Kadima: it's hard to get there from here, but once the maneuvering is over something like the 1984-88 rotation system might happen.

2) The Israeli left (meaning basically Labor and Meretz) are being marginalized. Barak's remarks suggesting their real role may lie in opposition is probably well-advised: Likud looked to be moribund in 2006, but has more than doubled its seats this time, from 12 at the election (others have defected to it since) to 27 this time. Labor, in opposition, might be able to similarly improve its visibility and underscore its identity.

3) This 18th Knesset will not serve out its term. It's too fragmented not to be vulnerable to partisan pressure and coercion. Unity governments are fragile because they c an do very little; narrow governments are fragile for the obvious reasons: one tiny party can bring it all down. Whatever coalition is formed will fall when some party pulls out over a (possibly peripheral) issue. I recall one time a government almost fell over the issue of daylight savings time (the religious parties were opposed). About the only hope for a real government would be if Kadima (most of whose members have roots in Likud) and Likud could somehow come back together. But that moves Kadima to the right and undercuts Livni's emerging identity.

4) A bit farther afield prediction: whether Tzipi Livni or Binyamin Netanyahu becomes PM, the next round of elections will see new faces at the heads of the three major parties, if Kadima even survives. Netanyahu and Barak are old faces who have already served as PM; Livni is as yet unproven. (This is the one I could be wrong about: Livni hasn't shown herself able to take command of the party yet, but then Ehud Olmert was still in office; she could prove to be a stronger leader than she has given the impression of being so far. She has had to remain in the shadow of Olmert so long as he was still Interim PM. Some of her critics have come pretty close to sexism in suggesting she may not be a strong enough wartime leader. Two words: Golda Meir.)

5) Lieberman is going to be a flash in the pan. This may be more wishful thinking on my part than prophecy, but divisive figures -- and fairly or not, he is dividing Israeli opinion, infuriating political opponents, scaring Israeli Arabs and confirming to many outside Arabs their worst stereotypes about Israel -- don't tend to prosper in democracies. On the flip side, though, difficult economic times can allow divisive figures to rise to power (Italy 1922, Germany 1933, Russia 1917, Huey Long in the US depression, etc.), and Israelis are feeling beleaguered again. (And a note here: I know the Israeli left calls Lieberman a fascist and he denies it vehemently: my references to Italy and Germany do not imply that he is a fascist, one of the most abused epithets in the language, only that difficult times bring out radical leaders. And I don't want to be overly neutral here -- objectivity is not neutrality -- but in my personal opinion Lieberman is at the very least a demagogue stirring up ethnic/racial resentments.) I think, or at least hope, that Israel isn't going down that road. On the other hand, Ariel Sharon (I almost said "the late" Ariel Sharon, though he is still medically alive) said and wrote many things almost as outrageous as Lieberman's worst: and yet Sharon pulled every settlement out of Gaza. There are some signs that Lieberman might even be willing to give up Israeli territory (Nazareth and Umm al-Fahm and the "Arab Triangle") to create a separate Palestinian state.

Personally, I don't trust that. Most Israelis I know don't either, but it looks as if 12% of Israeli voters are willing to see what he really means. And as I suggested in an earlier post, I think part of it is that a lot of people on the Israeli right just don't like Netanyahu personally. Somebody in the US negotiating world (and I think it might have been Dennis Ross, generally sympathetic to Israel) referred to Netanyahu as "insufferable," and a lot of Israelis seem to agree. He's abrasive. (So was Yitzhak Rabin, though, whom I met a few times. Gruff, tough, abrasive, chain smoker, like the traditional Israeli definition of the sabra or native born Israeli: like the prickly pear cactus for which they are named, "thorny on the outside but sweet on the inside." Except I'm not so sure Rabin was sweet on the inside, either. I don't think I've ever met Netanyahu.)

Peace process? Well, there isn't much of a peace process right now and it's not about to be jump started. A unity government will be fairly unwilling to do much because it will be covering all bases; a rightist government starts with a reluctance to deal; a centrist government will have to deal too much with the religious and other parties to make serious concessions. A leftist government doesn't seem to be numerically possible.

That's it for now. A mix of analysis and blather. (Dictionary definition of blogging?) I don't intend to blog at 11:30 at night except on election nights, and the meaningful ones in the Middle East are rare enough that I won't lose much sleep.

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