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Tzipi wins, Bibi leads and everybody is in government

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12 February 2009 12:42

As I found when I was posted there, Israel is heaven for political junkies. I was fortunate enough to watch two elections, but it is usually only after the election, when the horse-trading to form a coalition begins, that things get really interesting.

Despite Kadima narrowly collecting the most seats in parliament, Benjamin Netanyahu has the best chance to form a government, given the overall success of right-wing parties. Once Israel’s President asks someone to form a government (probably in a week), they will have 42 days to do the job. Even if it is Netanyahu, as is most likely, he will need a lot of that time to complete the task.

His likely right-wing coalition partners agree on security and foreign policy issues, but they are diametrically opposed on some key domestic issues. (In the election campaign, the spiritual leader of the ultra-orthodox Shas party said a vote for Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of Shas’s prospective coalition partner, Yisrael Beitenu, ‘gives strength to Satan’). In fact, on secular-religious issues, Yisrael Beitenu, with its large Russian émigré constituency mostly hostile to the ultra-orthodox, are a lot closer to Kadima. For much of the election campaign, Kadima head Tzipi Livni was flirting, politically, with Lieberman, and they have already met to discuss coalition options.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu will likely be able to keep Livni and Lieberman apart, and reconcile the ultra-religious and ultra-secular parts of a potential right wing coalition. The trouble is that he would actually prefer a broader, more centrist coalition for a range of reasons, not least to make his relations with the new Obama Administration a bit smoother. Ultimately, most Israeli Prime Ministers prefer to have the political room to manoeuvre that comes with having lots of coalition partners to play off against each other.

To build a broader coalition, he needs Livni. Here it will come down to her price. In theory, she could ask for a rotating prime ministership, as has operated in previous Israeli coalition governments. The fact that both parties have ruled it out already does not mean it is off the table, though it would be harder for Netanyahu to justify.

The next option is for Livni to accept a senior position in a Netanyahu-led government. Even though it would make her decision to force early elections last year look  amateurish (then she was trying to bring Netanyahu into a government she would lead; now she would be agreeing to join one he would lead), she can probably justify it on national unity grounds (‘moderating the excesses of the right’ etc). 

In many ways this would be the expected play in Israeli politics, where the joys of being in power are always seen to outweigh the delights of opposition and where there is almost no such thing as strange political bedfellows. But already Livni has shown herself to be an uncommon politician by Israeli standards. Few thought she would win leadership of Kadima after Ehud Olmert resigned, yet she did. She was given little chance of beating Netanyahu in the elections, yet she did, even if it didn’t quite deliver her the prime ministership. 

She may figure that, with a corruption indictment hanging over Avigdor Lieberman’s head and friction likely to result between a right-wing government and an Obama Administration, she would be better off sitting in opposition watching a right-wing coalition crumble. Much will also come down to the bargaining skills of Netanyahu; while he is an articulate politician he has never been as adept as a poker player.

Stay tuned, it is going to be fun to watch…

Photo by Flickr user Sharon G, used under a Creative Commons license.

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