A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, March 16, 2015

On Election Eve: Zionist Union Leading Likud, but Forming a Coalition May Be Another Matter

The Israeli elections are tomorrow. I haven't been blogging the campaign given the extensive number of Israeli English-language news sites, but I guess I need to go on the record before the vote.

The trick of course is that Israeli political maneuvering really begins after the votes are counted. No party has ever won a majority in the history of the state. The party that wins the most votes will be invited to form a government first. But that doesn't guarantee governance. In 2009 Tzipi Livni's (then) Kadima won more Knesset seats than Netanyahu's Likud, but could not put together a majority while Bibi could. (In 2013 Netanyahu and Likud ran more strongly but it still took time to hammer out a coalition.)

This year, Likud faces a stong challenge from a revitalized Labor Party, under Yitzhak (or Isaac) Herzog, in alliance with Tzipi Livni's current party, Hatnua, running together as the Zionist Union. Herzog, son of Chaim Herzog, onetime general, spokesman, and President of Israel. (The younger Herzog's family tree is fascinating too: Chaim was born in  Ireland of Polish ancestry and his wife in Egypt of Russian ancestry.)

Israeli laaw forbids polling in the last five days of a campaign, so the last published polls were dated last Friday. Most of hese showed the Zionist Union leading by about four seats over Likud, mostly in the range of 26-22 or 25-21. Likud's vote is expected to decline from 2013. If the actual vote bears that out, Herzog will likely have the first chance to form a government. He will have 28 days to do that and can ask for a 14-day extension for a total of 42. After that, Netanyahu would be offered the chance.

I'll offer my own speculations here, but note this piece in the pro-Herzog Haaretz arguing he can't make the math work; but see also this piece in The Forward that argues it's difficult but not impossible,

Though the polls indicate that many voters are disillusioned and tired of Netanyahu, and running second will be a blow to his prestige, don't count him out. Offering Herzog the first opportunity to forge a coalition is one thing, but as with Livni in 2009, actually putting together 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset is quite another matter.

Neither Herzog nor Netanyahu is likely to favor a National Unity Government including both parties (and ensuring policy paralysis) unless no other result is possible, so each of the two will be scrambling to put together a coalition for themselves and cut deals which will block their rival from forming one.

This where the math gets tricky for Herzog. The quirks of Israeli politics mean that in practice, not all parties elected are available for coalition building. Longstanding tradition holds that Zionist parties not build a coalition that depends for its majority on non-Zionist Communist and Arab parties. (There have been moments when a minority government held on to power because those parties did not vote no confidence, but they are not included in coalition-building.) Those parties are running this time as the United List, and this time around they have repeatedly asserted that they will not join any coalition. As of the end of polling most polls listed them as likely winning around 13 seats. If they do it would mean that 13 of the 120 seats are effectively out of play for coalition building. or a little over 10% of the Knesset. (And if Herzog did break with tradition and somehow persuaded them to join, two improbabilities to start with, he'd lose the ability to include the religious parties.)

The parties to the right of Likud, notably Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beteinu and Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home (HaBayit HaYehudi) will be off the table for bargaining with Herzog. His most natural allies would be Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid and the leftist Meretz, but these are fiercely secularist parties and would not play well with the religious  parties, mainly the haredi Shas and United Torah Judaism, and perhaps Yachad. (For years, coalitions depended on the moderate, Orthodox but non-haredi National Religious Party as a key element, but its linear descendant Jewish Home under Naftali Bennett makes Netanyahu look like a peacenik.) The new Kulanu Party might be persuaded to join as well. But several of these parties might be more natural partners for Likud.

So Herzog (assuming he wins more seats than Netanyahu) faces the quandary Livni did in 2009 when she failed to form a coalition: of the limited Lego blocks available for coalition building,  many do not all play well together. Add Meretz, lose Shas, and so on.

The electoral "threshold" is currently set at 3.25%, which translates roughly into four seats in he Knesset. Parties winning below the threshold have their votes distributed proportionally among the parties above the threshold, but some parties have vote-sharing agreements, and it can take several days to sort out the precise final distribution. Once that number is finalized (well, even before), the smaller potential partners start making demands and extracting promises from the two big blocs.

So tomorrow's vote is not the finish line but the starting gun. The campaign is over; let the wheeling and dealing begin!

And since it's also Saint Patrick's Day, watch the returns in an Irish pub. (actually I never go to an Irish pub on St. Patrick's Day; too many people who are only Irish once a year.)

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