Israel coalition possibilities

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.”

17 thoughts on “Israel coalition possibilities

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  3. The Yachad list is not just another Haredi party. It is currently an alliance of Eli Yishai and his co-defectors from Shas together with the national-religious Otzma Yehudit (formerly known as Otzma L’Israel) led by Kahanist Baruch Marzel, who was for a long time Kach’s spokesman after Kahane’s death. Though I can’t be sure about the dove/hawk orientation of Yishai in comparison with Shas, the alliance signals that he is probably more to the right, although the alliance may be more of a marriage of convenience for surpassing the threshold. Either way, there is no chance whatsoever that Yachad will join a left-wing government (at the very least not in unison).


    • Fair point, JD. I grouped it there because of Yishai, but I agree that it is clearly a part of the right-wing/nationalist bloc, whereas Shas and UTJ represent a distinct Haredi bloc.

      It is worth noting that the Shas leader, Aryeh Deri, has made a statement (with some equivocation) about favoring Netanyahu as PM. His preference isn’t a surprise, but I thought he might play more coy till after the election.


  4. Ha’aretz web-site in Hebrew has a (rather confusing) article about the relative strength of the ruling parties in parliamentary democracies, both in terms of vote percentage and relative size of the parliament delegation. It has been claimed that Israel has reached an all time low regarding the size of the ruling party, with Likud’s current toll of 18 Knesset members, which is 15% of the whole Knesset membership (120). It is further argued that even if Likud-Israel Beytenu list, which ran together in the last election, is considered a single party with 31 Knesset members and roughly 25% of the vote, Israel would still be in the bottom spot, only this time alongside Denmark, where the ruling Social Democrats have a 25% of the vote share and parliament membership. Then the confusing part begins, since the writers acknowledge the Belgium political scene is even more fragmented with the ruling party having about 22% of the parliament membership, and 20% of the vote. The writers have also approached several political science experts on the subject but their intake on the matter is not very clear, with comments made on various issues such as the relative strength of the Supreme Court in the Israeli legal system in relation to the Knesset, time elapsed between elections and the likelihood of a minority government in different systems, without making it clear how these issues are related to the main topic.
    Nevertheless the point made about the extreme weakness of the ruling party in Israel over most the past couple of decades is an interesting one. Barring Likud under PM Sharon, 2003-2006, having 38 Knesset members, the range for a ruling party in Israel (taking parties running together in a joint list as one party), since 1996, has been 27 to 32 and this time it seems a low record is about to be broken with both Likud and Labour gaining less than 25. The downtrend of the “big” parties started with the introduction of direct elections of Prime Ministers in 1996, but the change back to a “pure” parliamentary system in 2006 has produced just a onetime surge for the ruling party, and then a reversion to the former trend.
    Are there any lessons to be learned here? Is this phenomenon something inherently negative, and if so is there anything entrenched in the Israeli system causing it and what can be done to mitigate it?


    • There is no question that Israel is unusual (but not, as mentioned by DrorVa, unique) in the size of its largest party. On the other hand, given its electoral system, the fact that it had a leading party as large as was the case in the more distant past was also anomalous.

      Given a 120-seat nationwide district, we should expect, on average, 11 parties (of any size) and a largest party of around 36 seats. I am basing these on the formulas of Taagepera’s 2007 book, Predicting Party Sizes.

      Take that last one: the expected size of the largest party, at around 30% of seats. Israel’s largest party did not fall that low until 1996, which was indeed during the era of directly elected PM. It is also true that the size of the largest has been 30% or higher only once since 2003. It is now around 20%, which is pretty extraordinary. I guess the question is: how far can it go? One would think not much farther, and that somehow it will rise again even if nothing major changes to the institutions or the wider political scene. But, of course, that is not inevitable.

      And, no, I realize that was not an answer to the question. It was just an attempt to supply some context to just how surprisingly large the leading party once was (given the electoral system) and how remarkable the recent decline has been.


    • I don’t think anything fundamental was different in December than now. Had there been a fundamental opening for a left-of-center majority, it is quite unlikely that Bibi (1) would not have been aware of it, and (2) would have forced the “crisis” in his government that precipitated early elections.

      The previous government was essentially forced upon him, and he was just biding his time till he could seek one more to his liking.


      • And note that the piece Wilf linked to, despite mostly correctly identifying a set of optimistic signs for the center-left, still concludes that Netanyahu had an easier path to a majority coalition than Herzog. It, like many pieces on Israeli politics for European or North American readers, is pretty shallow, essentially reducing everything to left vs. right, without considering the further divisions within (notably Haredi-“secular”*). And it glosses over just how the Arab parties could block a right-wing coalition while still sitting in opposition; of course, it would be possible, but only if there was a center-left Zionist bloc over 61 seats. And the piece offers no hint that, even in December, such an outcome was viable.

        * quotes here because given how much the Haredim demand (and typically receive) in policy concessions, even someone committed to Jewish religious observance, but of the non-Orthodox variety, is routinely (if inaccurately) called “secular”.


  5. My perspective on both predictions, as a resident of Israel, is that both have some good points but try to reach hard conclusion where there are mostly question marks. The article described in the head post might be a bit too pessimistic, from a Labour point of view. It is true that both ultra-orthodox parties would rather not sit in government with Yesh Atid, and probably would signal their initial support for Netanyahu’s Likud. However if Netanyahu would not have a viable option to head a right wing government, supported by Kulanu (headed by former Likud minister Kachlon), than it is far from obvious that these parties, especially Shas whose voter base is more diverse and which have a wider agenda than Yahadut Hatora, would refuse a Labour-Yesh Atid government and force a “grand” coalition, where their influence would be much reduced. I also think that Netanyahu cannot realistically govern with a 61-62 Knesset members coalition, based on Yahad party, which has at least one projected Knesset member who is I think too extreme even for the right wingers of the Likud and Habayit Hayehudi and anyway would be an unreliable ally. So if Labour is to have a chance to govern without Likud, I think it first has to deny Netanyahu of a Likud-Shas-Yahadut Hatora- Habayit Hayehudi coalition. Then it has to be able to piece together a Labour-Yesh Atid-Kulanu-Meretz-Shas coalition of 61 or more. That means at least 4-5 seats needs to move from the right to the center-left for Herzog to have a real chance, if we look at the most recent polls. This definitely seems a stretch when we have less than 2 weeks till election day, but it is not impossible.
    As for the earlier article reffered to by Wilfredday – it was probably a bit too optimistic of Labour’s chances. Further, a couple of potential developments the article described, did not materialize. First, Kulanu party is so far not the hit it was hoped it would be and it appears most of its potential voters come from Yesh Atid’s pool of supporters, and not from Likud. Second, Lieberman’s Israel-Beytenu has taken a sharp u-turn back to the right wing. This may be attributed to a police investigation revealed early in the campaign about an alleged curroption scandal engulfing several of the party officials (though not Lieberman himself). This might have prompted Lieberman to turn back to his original base, hoping they would be more willing to stand by the party despite the suspected scandal.


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  7. The Joint List might not sit in coalition with the Zionist Center-Left, but the new governance bill would make it a lot easier to get their (perhaps grudging) support for a minority government. As I understand it, once the government has been formed, it is now necessary to get 61 affirmative votes in favor of an alternative government in order to topple the sitting one.

    If a Meretz-Zionist Union-Yesh Atid-Kulanu minority government were formed (53 seats in the final Haaretz poll), it is impossible to believe that there is an alternative government for which the Joint List would vote, given that every other party would be to the right of the coalition. This would leave a maximum of 54 MKs to vote in favor of such a bill unless someone from within the coalition decides to jump ship.

    Of course, such a bill would also make it easier for Bibi to hold power with a minority government. Likud, Habayit, Yisrael Beiteinu, and the three Haredi parties have 54 seats put together, and adding Kulanu to that mix would make 66. Netanyahu could afford to lose the support of any of those groups and yet still hold power for an entire 5-year Knesset term given how unlikely opposition cooperation would be in that situation.


    • From now on non-confidence votes will indeed be strictly constructive. However, there’s an Achilles heel: the Knesset can still vote to dissolve itself by majority vote.


      • Is that correct? Was the “constructive” provision changed? The previous version in place was so weak I really did not count it as such a case. It only mandated that 61 votes against an incumbent PM designated a new candidate for PM, not elected a new PM (as in Germany and Spain). That is an important distinction. I was not aware of a change having been enacted in this provision.

        In any case, I think it remains moot, because it is highly likely that there will be 61 MKs to favor a Likud-led government, unless some party currently leaning towards Likud changes its preference once the bargaining gets underway (or the election results are substantially different).


      • Yes, it was changed along with the threshold. The new provisions may well be characterised as super-constructive: the opposition must name a new prime minister, a nominee for each cabinet post and even a full coalition government programme. But as I said, the Knesset can always opt for new elections, which to my knowledge is what has so far virtually always happened when a government fell apart, so potentially very little change.


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