Strangely enough, almost three months before the election, it is pretty clear what the next government will look like. It’s not because we know who’ll win – Netanyahu has the upper hand, but it’s too early to call this one – but because of some circumstances created by the Israeli political system, combined with the current political dynamics.
Before I explain this, here is a remainder of the rules of the game: Israel is a parliamentary representative democracy. It has a general, multi-party system (there are no counties’ or districts’ representatives). The Knesset’s 120 seats are allocated proportionally between all parties who passed the minimum 2% threshold.
After the election, the president (currently Shimon Peres) gives the task of forming a new government to the member of Knesset who has the support of a majority of MKs. This person then must build – and later on maintain – a coalition of at least 61 MKs. Usually, when the prime minister loses the majority, the government will fall.
Now for the upcoming election: It is clear that all right-wing and orthodox parties will support Benjamin Netanyahu in his attempt to form a new government. Theoretically, the left and the center parties have two candidates for the job – Tzipi Livni (from Kadima) and Ehud Barak (Labor) – but with Labor crashing in the polls, it’s clear that the real candidate is Livni.
That’s how things will look on February 11th, the morning after the election:
Likud, Ihud Leumi, Yahaduth Hatorah, Shas and Israel Beitenu will go with Netanyahu; Kadima, Labor, Meretz, the three Arab parties and the Green party (if they pass the 2% threshold) will probably go with Livni. According to the latest polls, this gives Netanyahu a 55-65 advantage, meaning Shimon Peres will give him the opportunity to form a coalition.
Now, Netanyahu can easily build a right-orthodox coalition. That’s what he did after winning the 96′ election. The problem is, that these kind of coalitions never hold for very long: sooner or later – and more often sooner than later – the PM is forced to show some progress on the diplomatic front, and with the first sign of concessions or even renewed negotiations, the extreme right parties leave the coalition and the government crumbles. With a democratic president in the White House, this scenario is even more likely. Netanyahu’s first term in office ended exactly so, after Clinton forced him to follow through with the Oslo accord, and the extreme-right toppled him immediately. I don’t think he wants to make the same mistake twice.
So Netanyhu will ask Labor and maybe Kadima to join the government – either with the extreme right parties or without them. With Labor and Kadima on board, the government will have more credibility in the world and an easier life with the media – another delicate issue, especially for Netanyahu.
[The best option for Netanyahu is to have only Labor in the government – thus leaving Kadima out, and maybe causing this very young party to dismantle. Netanyahu will also prefer to have Barak and not Kadima's Shaul Mofaz as defense minister. The problem is, that if Barak crushes in the election, Labor won't be able to give the necessary cushion to balance the extreme right in the government. As Yossi Verter wrote in Haaretz, Netanyahu is actually better off with a narrow victory for the right than with a landslide].
So, if one has to predict now, Netanyahu will try to form a coalition with Livni in foreign office, Barak or Mofaz in the Defense office, and to keep the treasury to his party (as ruling parties usually do). Shas will get 2-3 less important ministries. If this doesn’t work, he will try to gamble: form a right-orthodox coalition, and than, when the peace process starts moving forward again, replace the extreme-right with the Labor and Kadima. That’s how Sharon was able to pull out of Gaza.
But what if the unlikely happens and Livni’s left-center block gets 61 Mks or more? Well, things will look surprisingly similar: Livni can’t form a left-center coalition, because traditionally, the non-Zionist Arab parties are not included in the ruling coalitions. She can try to rely on the Arabs’ support from outside the government – like Rabin did – but that will be perceived as a radical move to the left, and will probably result in a mutiny inside her own Kadima party. No, Livni will try to include the orthodox parties – Shas and Yahaduth Hatorah – but most of all, she will have the Likud as her senior partner.
And that’s how Livni’s government will look like: Netanyahu in the foreign office, Kadima keeping the treasury, and either Mofaz or Barak as defense minister (that will be Livni’s major problem – how to keep both of them happy). That’s an unlikely scenario right now – Netanyahu is way too strong – but even if it does happen, as you see, it won’t make much of a difference.