It is more than a week after the Israeli elections, and the nature of the next government is still not known. That already suggests that the next prime minister, whether Binyamin Netanyahu (likely) or Tzippi Livni (unlikely), will preside over a highly unstable coalition, and that much of his or her time will be spent dealing with fractious coalition members.
In 2001, Netanyahu turned down the premiership when it was handed to him on a silver platter, after the fall of Ehud Barak's government, because he saw no point in a prime ministerial election that left the same Knesset in place. He preferred to let Ariel Sharon swamp Barak in the prime ministerial election, and to wait in the wilderness for another eight years, to dealing with the same unstable constellation of coalition parties and their constant irreconcilable demands. He may well be asking himself today what he gained by the eight year wait.
In short, the Israeli electoral system is broken. It appears to have been designed to guarantee a series of short-lived governments, like post-war Italy. Conceivably a high level of political instability would be an affordable luxury if Israel faced no serious threats, either external or internal. But nothing could be farther from the truth. No country in the world faces the magnitude and multitude of threats to its existence that Israel does.
Netanyahu has the theoretical option of forging a narrow religious-right wing government that would include: Likud (27), Yisrael Beiteinu (15), Shas (11), United Torah Judaism (5), National Union (4), and the Jewish Home (3). Such a coalition, however, would be inherently unstable because of the incompatibility of the demands of Yisrael Beiteinu and the religious parties. Yisrael Beiteinu's primary domestic demands are civil marriages and a relaxation of standards for conversion, both of which are anathema to Shas and UTJ. Netanyahu wooed Shas away from Livni, prior to the elections, with the claim that while she might be able to offer more money for religious education, he would stand firm on the religious status quo. Were he to backtrack on even that promise he would have burned his bridges with Shas for a long time to come.
Even if a way could be found to paper over the differences within the coalition on religious issues, Netanyahu does not want to govern with the coalition described above. Such a coalition would be too easy to portray as extremist, and make things to easy for those in the international community eager to bring pressure to bear on Israel. Lieberman's election strategy, based on attacks on the loyalty of the Israel's Arab minority, renders him vulnerable to the fascist label, and it is always an easy matter to portray the religious (unless they are Muslims, who are always above reproach) as fanatics.
For her part, Livni could conceivably try to cobble together a coalition based on the previous partnership of Kadima (28), Yisrael Beiteinu (15), and Labor (13). But that only brings her to 56 Knesset members. Even with the addition of the three Knesset members from the left-wing Meretz party, she would still lack a majority of the Knesset. She would be left to depend on the support of the Arab parties, whose lack of loyalty to the State is long established. That she cannot do.
Moreover, Lieberman would face a revolt in his own party, which tilts Right, if he were to enable the formation of such a left-wing coalition. And Meretz and most of Labor would refuse to sit with Lieberman, to whom they readily apply the fascist label.
Because Netanyahu can theoretically form a coalition and Livni cannot, he will almost certainly be given the task of forming the next government by President Shimon Peres. As we explained above, he will try to form a broad-based coalition, anchored by Kadima, and probably joined by Yisrael Beiteinu. (To date, Ms. Livni is demanding a rotating prime ministership as her condition for joining a coalition.) If Netanyahu can convince Livni to join him, he could dramatically reduce Lieberman's leverage in negotiations, but would still likely have to sacrifice the three top portfolios – Defense, Foreign Affairs, and Finance – in order to form a broad-based coalition.
Livni would undoubtedly claim the Foreign Ministry for herself. To give herself something to do and maintain her profile, she would undoubtedly continue pursuing futile negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. In the waning days of her campaign, she settled on an Obamaesque mantra of offering "hope" for the "peace process," and one of her close allies in Kadima, Meir Shitreet, went even further in insisting that negotiations with the Syrians are also imperative. In short, Livni and Kadima would be a constant thorn in Netanyahu's side as he attempted to lower expectations for some kind of a signed agreement, and focus on dramatic improvements in the day-to-day economic lives of West Bank Palestinians and bottom-up creation of a democratic Palestinian civil society.
Defense would go to either former Chief of Staff and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz of Kadima or Lieberman. Mofaz has already failed disastrously in his previous stint in the position, in the period leading up to the Second Lebanon War. Lieberman might conceivably prove an able Defense Minister, despite his lack of military experience. But Israel is still reeling from the Amir Peretz episode, when the country went to war in Lebanon with a totally inexperienced Defense Minister chosen exclusively due to political considerations.
The tragedy is that Netanyahu will be forced, out of coalition-building considerations, to pass over far better choices for the post from his own Likud party: former Chief of Staff Gen. Moshe (Boogie) Yaalon or former chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Professor Yuval Steinitz.
The Finance Ministry would go to either the current Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On of Kadima or Lieberman. The latter says he has no interest in the post. Again there are far better choices within Likud.
Even if he succeeds in forming a broader coalition on the grounds we have described, Netanyahu will spend a great deal of his waking hours lamenting that he is not in the position of President Barack Obama, who can choose his cabinet from among the most competent people for the post and to whom each cabinet member owes his position and loyalty. Obama does not have to worry about his Secretary of Agriculture going on radio and offering foreign policy views totally at variance with those of the government. But such things are daily occurrences in Israel, where cabinet members do not view themselves as owing their position to the prime minister.
In the event of a broad coalition of Likud, Kadima, and Yisrael Beiteinu, electoral reform is likely to be high on the government's agenda. It is a central plank in the Yisrael Beiteinu platform. And both Netanyahu and Livni have had ample enough experience with trying to form or hold together narrow coalitions not to wish to spend the rest of their political lives doing so. Presumably any Israeli politician who views him or herself as a potential prime minister would rather be able to focus his or her attention on confronting the massive challenges facing Israel than on constant bickering between and with coalition partners.
The three largest parties could pass electoral reform by themselves, without having to worry about the opposition of the religious and smaller parties. In addition, Labor would also be likely to support a major overhall of the electoral system. That overhall would likely involve at least two elements: a move away from proportional representation towards single-member districts and raising the threshhold for a party to enter the Knesset.
Both steps have always been considered inimical to religious interests by virtue of the fact that they would reduce the percentage of religious representatives in Knesset. And that, in turn, would lessen the leverage of the religious parties over precarious governing coalitions.
But here it makes a large difference what form reform would take. One recent proposal, for instance, suggests a Knesset in which 60 members would be chosen by proportional representation and 60 from single-member districts. In such a scheme, there would still be chareidi representatives in the Knesset from Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, and perhaps from areas with all chareidi cities, unless the districts were gerrymandered egregiously to avoid any religious representation. Dramatically raising the percentage required to enter the Knesset via proportional representation could be overcome by Shas and United Torah Judaism uniting in a joint election list rather than competing separately. While many of Shas's non-chareidi voters would probably shun such a list, the chareidi parties would nevertheless not be left completely out in the cold. And there might even be salutary benefits from unification.
Nor is it correct that political power is perfectly correlated with the number of Knesset representatives. In districts in which there are a significant number of chareidi voters, and a closely contested election between two major party candidates, the known propensity of chareidim to vote in blocs would force the candidates to court the chareidi vote. (Consider the energy the Hilary Clinton invested in courting Skverer Chassidim in her first senatorial bid, despite Skverer Chassidim constitutiong a very small percentage of New York State voters.) Influence wielded indirectly in this fashion might have the advantage of lowering antagonism to chareidim among the general public and thereby facilitate kiruv activities.
United Torah Judaism
One would have to be a brilliant pilpulist to make the case that the election results were anything less than a disappointment for United Torah Judaism, which declined in its Knesset representation from six to five. For the first time in memory, chareidi voting rates were not significantly higher than those in secular areas.
The rapid rate of population growth in the chareidi sector and the large numbers of chareidim becoming eligible to vote every year should long since have pushed UTJ's Knesset representation to seven or eight. Instead, it fell. Clearly, then, many chareidi voters either did not vote at all or voted for other parties.
In the light of such a setback, one of two things can happen. Either those responsible can cast about for scapegoats, wildly lashing out in every direction for those upon whom they can place the blame, or they can use the failure as an occasion for some soul-searching about where they went wrong.
If we see more of the latter than the former, then something positive may ultimately come out of the immediate election failure. For apart from the mirror that the elections held up to some of the inner workings of the chareidi community, they had little impact on chareidi political power. Whether UTJ has five or six Knesset members makes little difference in the current constellation of forces in the Knesset.
Important religious issues will surely arise in the next Knesset. Avigdor Lieberman made civil marriage and eased conversion procedures the center point of his domestic agenda throughout the electoral campaign. Neither Kadima or Likud (apart from some promises made to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef of Shas) have any particular objections to either, and probably support both. Depending on the nature of the coalition, attempts may be made to fashion a compromise on civil marriage, in which it would only be available for those otherwise incapable of marrying. But, in point of fact, once the civil marriage genie is out of the bottle, it is unlikely to be put back in. The lines of distinction between parties allowed to opt for civil marriage and those denied that choice will be seen as too fine to be maintained for long. Once Israel opened its doors to over half a million non-Jews from the FSU, the pressure for civil marriage was bound to keep growing.
It should be noted that civil marriage and reduced standards for conversion are entirely distinct matters. The former does not have an immediate impact on the ability of religious Jews to lead their lives. And it might even have one benefit: a reduction in the number of mamzerim. Altering the standards for conversions to fill specific numerical quotas is an entirely different matter. For there cannot be a greater falsification of the halachic process than for halachic procedures, such as geirus, to be dictated by politicians, possessing neither knowledge of or respect for halacha, with the goal of attaining specific results. It would be far better for Israel to give up any pretense to being a "Jewish state" or making any legal distinctions between Jews and non-Jews – e.g., for purposes of the Law of Return – than to permit such a falsification.
Other Results of the Election
Elections not only determine the next government; they also provide a picture, however imperfect, of the mindset of the Israeli population. In that context, it is worth noting that religious issues played only a minimal role in the election, apart from Livni's half-hearted attempts to claim the anti-chareidi vote by demanding that one and all perform some form of national service. Compare the situation today to 2001, when Shinui swept into the Knesset as the third largest party, with seventeen seats, on an exclusively anti-chareidi platform. Shinui no longer exists, and its former partner in anti-chareidi incitement Meretz has moved on to other issues.
Speaking of Meretz, another clear outcome of the election was a severe blow to the political Left. Meretz, the furthest Left of the nominally Zionist parties, was further reduced to three seats. Labor, which led the country for its first 29 years, was humiliated by winning only 13 seats. Nor is it even clear how much of a left-wing party Labor, under Ehud Barak, really is. Barak's campaign was primarily an attempt to jockey for the Defense portfolio, and to that end he promoted himself as Mr. Tough Guy. Even if some Meretz and Labor voters went to Kadima, in an effort to keep Likud from being the largest party, the Jewish Left, appears to constitute less than one-sixth of the electorate.
Nor was it a particularly good election for the Right side of the political spectrum. National Union and Jewish Home (a reconstituted version of the National Religious Party) managed only seven seats between them. Some right-wing voters may have gone over to Yisrael Beiteinu, but the latter's electorate appears to remain almost exclusively Russian-speakers.
In short, a political consensus appears to be emerging around the Center, and all the major candidates took note of that fact. Netanyahu, for instance, pointedly refused to commit to opposing a Palestinian state in any form. The consensus position of the vast majority of Israeli Jews, argues Barry Rubin, director off the Global Research in International Affairs Center, includes a willingness to make serious concessions for a true, lasting stable peace, and countenance a two-state solution. At the same time, however, a large majority of Israelis do not believe that the Palestinian leadership is willing or able to make peace or will be able to do so for a very long time into the future. In the meantime, Israel will focus on the economic development of the West Bank in the hope of forestalling a Hamas takeover there. The greatest threat to Israel, in the eyes of most Israelis, is Iran, about which some very unsavory decisions will have to be made soon.
Of course, there remain differences between the different parties. Netanyahu has a clear vision and is better able to articulate it than Livni. The latter continues to talk as if it were in Israel's power to bring about peace, and to emphasize that Israel will have to reduce its size in half. If she believes that Israel, rather than the Palestinians, holds the keys to peace she is a fool. And if she does not, she is also a fool, and a dangerous one, for promoting that misreading around the world.
The emergence of a degree of broad consensus in Israeli politics should make it easier for the next government to focus on tackling the challenges ahead. Unfortunately, nothing has emerged from the political jockeying since the election to suggest that is likely to be the case.