Predicting Israel's Post-election Coalition: A Rock-solid, Resurgent Right

The Likud has thankfully shed the flotsam that it had accumulated as a party of power. The next coalition - after all the spins and counterspins are over - will likely be a reincarnation of Ariel Sharon’s 2003 coalition: a Netanyahu- Lieberman-Bennett-Lapid team.

Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: AFP
Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar

The last polls prior to the real election are contradictory. Some show a tightening race; others project a convincing victory for the center-right. While it would take a reversal of Trumanesque proportions to remove Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power, the size of the victory margin will also be scrutinized. Will the outgoing coalition tenuously remain in power with 63 Knesset seats? Or will it cross the psychologically important political thresholds of 70 or more seats that facilitates the formation of a successor coalition?

The box-score amongst all the parties may prove as important as the line-score in terms of coalition formation. One of the ironies of the election is the Likud’s hope that Shaul Mofaz and others intending to go down with the Good Ship Kadima will survive as a minimalist Knesset faction. If the coalition-in-formation salvages Kadima, it will legitimate a decision by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid futurists to come aboard as well.

Another number to watch is the Naftali Bennett-led Habayit Hayehudi's tally. After every election since 1977, the party charged with forming the coalition has found it difficult to ignore the party deemed to be the surprise of the elections. Thus, coalition-brokers negotiated with the Democratic Movement for Change 1977, with Shas in 1999 and with Shinui in 2003. Rafael Eitan's Tzomet was courted by Yitzhak Rabin in 1992, but Tzomet refused to enter the coalition, given the unbridgeable ideological differences between them. It would therefore be surprising when – after all the spins and counterspins are over - to see Habayit Hayehudi outside a Netanyahu coalition.

We are therefore seemingly on the verge of a lookalike coalition to that built by Ariel Sharon in 2003, one that was based on the Likud, Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu, the late Tommy Lapid’s Shinui and the National Religious Party (the forerunner of Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi). That coalition ended tragically with the expulsion from Gaza and the cynical genesis of Kadima. This time a Netanyahu-Lieberman-Bennett-Lapid (son, not father) team may work out better.

Why would this coalition work better in its second incarnation? First of all, Netanyahu is not Sharon. He resisted the blandishments from the left as well as international pressure to conform to the international community's narrative by betraying his constituency and by surrendering to Palestinian demands. If - however improbably - he was to flirt with "pulling a Sharon," another disengagement-type decision, it is doubtful that he could carry today’s Likud with him. The Likud has thankfully shed the flotsam that it had accumulated as a party of power. As opposed to the likes of Meir Sheetrit, who disdainfully proclaimed the end of ideology once he joined Kadima, those candidates who are prominent on the Likud list are those who are ideologically sound, in terms of what is still the Likud platform, Yariv Levin, Tzipi Hotoveli and Ze'ev Elkin accurately reflect today’s Likud. Yair Shamir and Uzi Landau, Avigdor Lieberman’s contribution to the cabinet till his legal issues are resolved, are also rock-solid.

In the 2003 Sharon coalition, the ultra-Orthodox parties were excluded; they may be included in the next coalition but with substantially reduced leverage. The election will result in one fundamental change: For the first time since 1981, a Religious Zionist party will be the largest religious party in the Knesset. The total number of religious Zionist MKs will outnumber the combined number of ultra-Orthodox Knesset members.

This will result – at least in the case of the Ashkenazi chief rabbi - in the salutary return of the Chief Rabbinate to Zionist hands. Since the ultra-Orthodox have their own religious arbiters, the rabbinate for them was merely a source of patronage. We can expect religious decisions to be more responsive to festering problems such as the conversion of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Requests for conversion will not be rubber-stamped and faxed - as in the infamous Shas campaign ad - but neither will they be consigned to the dead letter office.

While the ultra-Orthodox may lose bargaining power, they would be mistaken to consider Lapid and Bennett threats to their existence. Lapid the younger is not his father, Tommy, who considered religion to be an anachronism doomed for extinction. Yair Lapid's Knesset faction will include two observant Jews: Rabbi Shai Piron, whom Lapid would like to name Minister of Education, and Aliza Lavie. And in terms of the biggest issue for the ultra-Orthodox world, the extension of the military draft to the ultra-Orthodox community, at one point Lapid appeared to subscribe to the policy proposed by Elazar Stern, former Israel Defense Forces general and now a candidate for Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah party, that suggested granting a blanket five-year army deferment to Haredim, in the expectation that it would entice those not intent or built for full-time Torah study into the workforce.

While intending to expand the influence of religious Zionism, Bennett projects himself as a national, rather than a sectoral, leader, and this tendency will be reinforced by his desire to retain the support that he managed to attract outside traditional knitted-kippa bastions. His attitude toward the Haredim is more Fabian rather than confrontational. Bennett believes that if one wants more ultra-Orthodox serving in the IDF, the IDF must develop more programs that will accommodate the Haredi population. Existing programs are oversubscribed, and a process of acceptance of Haredi army service within the ultra-Orthodox community, which is already gathering impetus, will at some stage reach the tipping-point.

Both Bennett and Lapid appeared on a recent speed-dating interview program for party political leaders on Israeli television, hosted by Nissim Mishal. They proclaimed that they agreed on 70 percent of the issues facing the country - not a bad start for prospective coalition partners.

The rebirth of the 2003 coalition has a great potential for good; one only hopes that that potential will be realized.

Dr. Amiel Ungar is a political scientist.

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