Jeremy Saltan summarizes the key messages of an Israeli party leaders’ debate held the last week of February. He observes that much of the debate focused around the stages after the seats are allocated: the recommendation of a formateur (party leader who will attempt to assemble a coalition) and which parties a given party would, or would not, agree to sit with. Examining these public commitments can offer clues to where the cabinet formation process is headed.
Of course, politicians have incentives to appear committed to extract a better deal, so no statement of refusal to take a given partner absolutely rules out such a partnership. On the other hand, to break a commitment, a party leader is likely to demand just that–a better deal. Thus we can assume that statements of intent before an election are signals that rise farther above the noise than most: breaking them is not costless, either for the party whose leader made the statement, or for potential partners who have to give up something important to make a deal.
These statements matter, because the path to a majority coalition for the Zionist Union (Labor + HaTnua) is so narrow. Zionist Union currently looks to win around 24 seats. A majority coalition headed by Zionist Union, but not including Likud, would start with the following parties, with their likely seats indicated*: Meretz (5), Kulanu (8), Yesh Atid (12). At this point we are at 49, meaning 12 more are needed. The most likely place is the ultra-Orthdox parties, of which we have three this time, although one of them (Yachad) is polling just barely at the threshold (4 seats). The other two, Shas and UTJ are combining for 13-14 seats. Obviously, that’s good enough, we are over 61.
But wait! Yesh Atid leader, Yair Lapid, built much of his campaign in 2013 and his party’s record in government around “equalizing the burden”, meaning the reduction of draft exemptions and other policy benefits to the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox). In fact, he and Bayit Yehudi (otherwise a right-wing religious-nationalist party) vetoed the inclusion of the Haredi parties in the last government. Would he agree to serve in a cabinet with them this time to block a Likud-led government? Don’t count on it. Summarizing the statements of Lapid in the debate, Saltan concludes, “Lapid crushed Herzog’s dream of having both of them in the same coalition.” The refusals come from the other side, too, as Shas’s leader Aryeh “Deri made it clear he will sit with anyone including Eli Yishai [Shas defector now heading Yachad], but he won’t sit with Yair Lapid”.
So we are back at 49-50 seats, with either Yesh Atid or the Haredi parties out. Where are the other 12 (or 11) coming from? There is only one bloc not on the right that could have that number of seats: the Joint List, which is made up of the Arab parties (including Hadash, which has one Jewish MK). These are non-Zionist parties. Can they make a coalition with a party that brands itself as Zionist Union? Can Zionist Union bring them in? I’d say no. There could be “understandings” by which the Joint List’s parties agree to try to block a Likud-led coalition and to support a ZU-led government on specific issues, but it is almost impossible to imagine a ZU-led coalition that needs those seats for its governing and budget-making majority. But don’t listen to me, listen to the leaders. “The Joint List’s Iman Udah refused to commit to helping Herzog in Phase 2 (formateur recommendation) or 3 (coalition making)”, says Saltan. So, refusing to commit to help is not the same as won’t help, but it is not exactly a lifeline you’d want to count on. Herzog himself says he has not ruled out the Arab parties. Still, it is quite a stretch to believe he would be dependent on them. Moreover, it is entirely possible that even if Herzog and the Joint List reached agreement, he’d lose Lapid and/or Kahlon, and quite likely the Haredim.** (All this despite the fact that the Arab parties might win more seats than ever, thanks to the Joint List, and a poll showing a majority of Arab voters want the Joint List in government. The bottom line is that the Joint List was formed to cope with the threshold increase, not to be part of the government of Israel.)
Where else are the seats coming from? There isn’t a path to a ZU-led, Likud-free government. Simple as that. Unless the polls change a lot in the last two weeks, Likud will be in the government.
Note, I did not say Likud will lead the government. How about a ZU-Likud coalition. This would control around 47 seats. I see no reason why Yesh Atid and Kulanu would not clamber on board. That’s 67 seats. So it could happen. However, in the past week, “Prime Minister Netanyahu posted on his Facebook page and Twitter that he will not join a coalition with the Zionist Union”. So, it appears ruled out. On the other hand, what if he finishes second, and Herzog makes a public declaration for unity? Who knows!
It is not as if the largest party gets the first chance to attempt to form a government. Just ask Livni! She led Likud by a seat in 2009, but there was clearly a right-wing bloc with a majority and so Likud led the coalition that formed, leaving Livni’s Kadima isolated (or in sweet disconnect, as I put it at the time). That could easily happen again: Likud (23), Bayit Yehudi (12), Kulanu (8), Yisrael Beiteinu (6), Haredim (12+). Where things get interesting is if some of the above parties abstain from recommending Bibi Netanyahu to be formateur. Consider that the parties just named (minus Kulanu, which did not exist) had a majority in the outgoing Knesset; if they were all eager to govern together, they could have done so without this election. Thus there are several parties that could be open to a government not led by Likud, but it is unlikely that such a government would exclude Likud, for the reasons noted previously. Thus the most likely outcome remains a Likud-led government in which the Haredim are involved, Yesh Atid is not, and Yisrael Beiteinu is much diminished (but still pivotal). That actually would be a fairly different government from the one that formed after the 2013 election, but the man in the PM’s chair would remain the same.
* See the first link. I am using the numbers Saltan provides from the “poll of polls” for the week ending 28 February.
** Saltan again: Deri of Shas “said there is no partner for peace with the Palestinians and rejected [Joint List leader] Iman Udah’s offer to work together if Udah remains focused on the Palestinian issue.”