Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Benjamin Netanyahu, the next PM of Israel

Crunch the polling numbers any way you want - the inevitable outcome, barring a seismic shift in Israeli voter sentiment over the course of the next 50 days, will be a government headed by current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Two days remain before final party lists are published, and I can imagine yet another "surprise" joining together of currently separated lists. But barring that, we have the broad contours of the Israeli electorate in the winter of 2015. I think we're looking at a variation of the 2009 Israeli elections, in which Netanyahu's Likud came in second place, but still formed the government.

The best poll averaging web site is Project 61. Seven weeks out, the renamed Labor party - now calling itself "the Zionist Camp" - leads with a projected 25 seats. Netanyahu's Likud party comes in a close second, at 23. The remaining 60% of legislative seats are divided, in descending order, between right-wing, religious, centrist, Arab, and left-wing parties.

As in 2009, the winning party will not be called on to form a government. That task will fall to the leader who can convince Israel's President Ruvi Rivlin that he has the best shot to form a government. And that leader will be Netanyahu.

Take the long view. I've gone back 7 Knesset elections back to 1992, and broken down the political parties into 4 blocs: 1) secular-right-national; 2) secular-center-left; 3) religious-ultra-Orthodox; and 4) Arab. When the secular-center-left bloc gets above 49, it forms a government. It takes 43 seats for the secular-right-national bloc to form the government. According to Project 61, we're at 37 for the secular-right-national and 38 for the secular-center-left. No one has crossed the threshold for a certainty.

The newly united Arab parties' list is not a factor in coalition politics, because all Zionist players consider the Arab parties treyf. So in fact a leader must get to 61 from the remaining 107 seats.

The growing religious-ultra-Orthodox bloc will hold the key. It might surprise you, but various components of this bloc could go either way - it all depends on what is offered party leaders in the inevitable coalition negotiations that will ensue after elections.

One caveat - I think the polling numbers for Bennett's Bayit Yehudi party are too high.

Netanyahu will have two different paths to the required 61 seat majority in the Knesset. Most likely, he will attempt a so-called "national unity government." Despite the acrimony of the current election campaign (oftentimes quite personal), never underestimate the desire of Israeli politicians to have delivered to them control of massive governmental bureaucracies. I could easily imagine a secular center-right coalition made up of Likud, Zionist Camp, Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beytenu, and Moshe Kahalon's new Kulanu party, for a total of 64 seats. Some of these parties could be dismissed for religious parties and still maintain a semblance of "national unity."  And if the "unity" fever becomes strong, one could imagine a not particularly stable government of over 75 seats. This unwieldy scenario would be the best outcome for hopes of holding in abeyance any military misadventure with Iran because of serious disagreements within the unity umbrella. But it would mean continued stalemate with the Palestinians, with a government of Israel torn internally on how to best move forward. One governmental crisis and the whole thing would collapse.

Or Bibi can go the "hard-right" route. Here he works with right-wing, religious, and ultra-Orthodox parties, with Avigdor Lieberman's dwindling Yisrael Beytenu vanity party. He would have 62-69 seats this way.  Then the chances of a military attack on Iran go way up, and re-energized opposition to any American-brokered diplomatic path to resolving Palestinian claims becomes the norm.

Another good web site is batelbe60.com. They try to "Nate Silver" the election polling, and they come up with similar results. While they don't break up the parties into the same blocs that I do, they argue that the current numbers give a very high chance for the formation of a national unity government, either secular or with some ultra-Orthodox components. Next would come a not too impossible center-left government, with some ultra-Orthodox. Least likely would be a hard-right religious ultra-Orthodox government. Impossible would be a center-left secular government.

What is abundantly clear is that these elections are a waste of everyone's time - and that just may be the point. It may have seemed to Netanyahu in December that a rearrangement of the political deck-chairs on the Titanic was in order. Or it may have seemed a convenient way to take a pause from dealing with Israel's security and domestic problems. Either way, the systemic and incapacitating divisions of the Israeli electorate remain. Nothing has changed: the Israeli electorate is as divided as ever, creeping to the right and towards God.

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