Who Will Be Israel's Next Prime Minister?

Theoretically, the former TV journalist and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid could head a stable government, but all signs point to him forging a coalition government with Netanyahu at the helm.

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Yair Lapid, the dark horse of Israel's 2013 election, on Tuesday night became the candidate most courted by both the right and left blocs. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is interested in making Lapid a major anchor in the broad government he is planning, the center bloc – and especially the Labor Party – has its eyes on Lapid as the next prime minister.

But the chances of a Prime Minister Lapid, as of now, are slim. On the eve of the election, Lapid made it clear that he does not see himself as a candidate for premier, and his electorate is largely based on rightist voters who wavered between him and Naftali Bennett. Lapid doesn't want to betray a significant chunk of those who voted for him, and entering a center-left government would dishonor those moderate declarations he made as the votes were starting to come in.

Moreover, in the center-left bloc they made it clear on Tuesday that it is by no means certain Lapid will have a majority among the factions when they make their recommendation for prime minister to the president. The Arab factions might want to abstain, or they could nominate another candidate of their own.

A more likely possibility is that Lapid will join an “equality of the burden” government headed by Netanyahu. In a government like that, which could also include Habayit Hayehudi, Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah and Kadima, there would be a stable majority of 69 Knesset members at the expense of the ultra-Orthodox factions.

Labor Party chair MK Shelly Yacimovich announced last night that she will fight with all her might for the formation of a government headed by someone other than Netanyahu. It was the first time she hinted that she might be willing to support a candidate for prime minister other than herself. Yacimovich hastened to phone Lapid last night and congratulate him on his impressive achievement. She also saw to it that her party activists applauded the Yesh Atid achievement during the course of her speech.

As of now, before the votes cast by soldiers on their bases have been counted, Lapid could – under certain circumstances – head the next government if he so desires: Lapid, Yacimovich, Hatnuah headed by Tzipi Livni, Meretz, Kadima and the Arab factions together are worth 60 Knesset seats. In recent months, Yacimovich claimed it would be possible to harness the ultra-Orthodox factions in support of the bloc. If that succeeds, Lapid could enjoy a stable majority that does not necessarily rely on the votes of the Arab parties, about which he has made no secret of his repugnance.

But while feasible, this scenario remains highly unlikely, and not only because experts say Lapid does not want to serve as an inexperienced prime minister.

Lapid promised his voters that he will push forward the law requiring equality in bearing the burden of military service. There was dramatic, widespread support for the initiative, but Habayit Hayehudi has also raised the flag of conscripting the ultra-Orthodox. It is therefore likely that the ultra-Orthodox parties would not give their support to such a coalition.

Another scenario for a Lapid-led government includes the center-left parties and Habayit Hayehudi, headed by Naftali Bennett. Such a government would be positioned to push for a revolutionary change in the realm of military conscription.

The centrist parties, though, would press for renewed diplomacy with the Palestinians and for evacuation of the illegal outposts dotting the West Bank. Bennett would find it difficult to have a hand in either move.

In addition, Yesh Atid sources said Tuesday that Lapid – who apparently benefited from many Israelis choosing him over Bennett at the very last moment – cannot turn his back on the many right-wing voters who supported him. Taking a sharp left turn, right now, is out of the question.

In the inner rings of politics, few believe Lapid will be tempted to form his own government. Instead, Yesh Atid is expected to consider joining with Netanyahu in return for the right ministerial portfolios and a string of agreements on some of the party's core issues. So it's reasonable to expect Lapid to insist on pushing for equality of the burden.

But any such agreement with Netanyahu could send the ultra-Orthodox factions packing. If Lapid also commits to pushing for peace talks, Habayit Hayehudi could find itself far from the government table.

Lapid’s insistence on restarting negotiations with the Palestinians could make it easier for him to “slide” Hatnuah chair Tzipi Livni into the government. Among political insiders, the word in recent weeks has been that Livni – who came out weaker than she had expected – would prefer to join a coalition rather than become an opposition party with no clout.

But Livni can only align herself with Netanyahu if he creates a political climate where she doesn't have to betray her own campaign values. The most prominent of those issues, of course, is restarting the peace process with the Palestinians.

In a bid to boost his own power, Lapid might offer Livni a merger with his slate, thereby creating a party of significant force, one that could force Netanyahu to make several compromises when it comes to the coalition agreement.

And these are not the only parties Netanyahu is watching. He is also waiting to learn Kadima's fate. In the vote count thus far (as opposed to the exit polls), Kadima is a hair away from the electoral threshold and sending two MKs to the Knesset. If they do make it in, they will find themselves – by most assessments – with a seat at the government's table.

If Netanyahu wants to build a government of the right and the ultra-Orthodox (meaning Habayit Hayehudi, Shas and United Torah Judaism), he only has the support of 60 MKs. But if he were to bring in Kadima, he would get two additional votes on his side.

Figures like this would, for all intents and purposes, tie his hands. They would make his coalition unsteady. And besides, in recent months Likud members have been saying that Netanyahu is not interested in such a government – it would paint an image of extremism for those watching from abroad and would make it truly difficult for him to advance a diplomatic, economic and social agenda.

As it stands at this moment, an "equality of the burden" government, with Netanyahu at the helm, is the most stable and likely alternative. If Netanyahu forges a partnership with Lapid, Bennett, Hatnuah and Kadima, he will have a stable coalition of 69 Knesset members. But it will come at the expense of the ultra-Orthodox factions, his historical partners.

Yair Lapid fared far better than expected in Tuesday's election.Credit: Hadar Cohen
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid delivers a speech to his supporters after winning 19 Knesset seats.
Naftali Bennett greets his supporters at the party's headquarters in the city of Ramat Gan, Jan. 22, 2013.
Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovich delivers a speech, January 22, 2013.
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Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid delivers a speech to his supporters after winning 19 Knesset seats.Credit: AP
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Naftali Bennett greets his supporters at the party's headquarters in the city of Ramat Gan, Jan. 22, 2013. Credit: AP
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Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovich delivers a speech, January 22, 2013. Credit: AFP
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