By Linda Gradstein/The Media Line
It is now a full month since the Israeli public went to the polls, but the winner, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, is not even close to forming a new government. He needs to reach the magic number of 61 parliament members out of a total of 120, who will join his coalition government.
Next Thursday, Netanyahu will meet with Israel’s President Shimon Peres. If he hasn’t yet formed a government, he will ask for an extension. A month later the two men will meet again. If by then, he still hasn’t succeeded, Israel will most likely go to new elections.
Betting on the outcome of the coalition negotiations has become a parlor game for Israelis. So far, Netanyahu has signed an agreement with just one party – Hatenuah, headed by former foreign minister Tzippi Livni, who has been sharply critical of Netanyahu’s politics.
In exchange for bringing her six seats to the table, Livni will become justice minister and will be in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians. The latter, by the way, goes against an explicit campaign statement by Netanyahu that Livni, who has been pushing for a two-state solution of Israel next to a Palestinian state, will not be involved in negotiations with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu apparently hoped that once Livni fell into line, other parties would be knocking on his door. He is especially interested in two new parties that emerged as winners in the election – the 19-seat centrist Yesh Atid headed by former television personality Yair Lapid and the 12-seat Habayit Hayehudi, headed by Netanyahu’s former chief of staff Naftali Bennett.
On the face of it, these two parties have little in common. Lapid champions the secular middle class; Bennett’s constituency is the settlers. But they have made a pact that they will only join the government together, and only if the government adopts a plan to “share the burden” of army service by drafting tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox young men who have received army deferments to study Jewish texts full-time.
Two senior ultra-Orthodox rabbis, Aharon Leib Shteinman and Shmuel Auerbach, both declared this week that they would never agree to allowing their students to join the army. Auerbach wrote the idea is “a decree to uproot the Torah,” referring to the Hebrew word for the Bible. In Israel, men are drafted for three years and women for two. Most ultra-Orthodox and Arabs do not serve although they can volunteer.
Together Bennett and Lapid have 31 seats – the same number as Netanyahu’s alliance of Likud and Yisrael Beitenu (a Russian-speakers party headed by Avigdor Lieberman, who has temporarily stepped down as foreign minister while on trial for corruption.)
“Netanyahu is much weaker today than he was after the last elections,” Eytan Gilboa, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University, told The Media Line. “He was hoping that bringing Livni into the government would break the alliance of Bennett and Lapid, who have prime ministerial aspirations as well.”
Israel has a history of new parties emerging on the scene, getting strength from disaffected voters, failing to achieve their aims and virtually disappearing in the next election. Both Lapid and Bennett know that unless they can achieve their pre-election goals they will be kicked out. They have more of a chance of doing this inside the coalition than outside, and at least one of them will probably join the government.
Bennett this week insisted that going into the opposition “will not be the end of the world” at the same time calling on Netanyahu to reopen negotiations with his party.
“This is like a game of chicken and the question is who is going to blink first?” Gilboa asked.
With both Lapid and Bennett, Netanyahu would have 69 seats, a comfortable majority. But it is also possible that he will choose a different constellation of parties – adding the ultra-Orthodox and the two-seat Kadima party for a majority of 57. He can then either approach Bennett, who might agree to break off his alliance with Lapid, or the center-left Labor Party, which has 13 seats.
Most Israeli analysts say it is unlikely that Israel will go to new elections.
“Every time we are surprised that it takes so long to form a coalition,” Tamir Sheafer, a professor of political science, told The Media Line. “But as far as I remember we have never gone to new elections and I can’t see it happening now."