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Election analysis: A shared Netanyahu-Herzog government?

Herzog and Bibi’s political interests and the fragmented Knesset that is likely to emerge after the elections might force Likud and Labor into a power-sharing deal. Avigdor Liberman and President Rivlin already support the idea.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Will Netanyahu have to share power in the next government? (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

The Israeli Labor Party, which will participate in the upcoming election under the banner of “The Zionist Camp,” held its primaries this week. Former party leader Shelly Yachimovich won second place (first place is reserved for party leader Isaac Herzog); Stav Shafir and Itizik Shmuli, two of the leaders of 2011’s social protest movement, were elected in top places. Altogether the list leans a bit to the left of what Herzog and Tzipi Livni, who will lead the party, would have liked to see. They run the risk of drawing support from the leftist Meretz rather than from the right, which they need in order to win a Knesset majority and form a coalition. The first few polls conducted after the primaries give Labor 25 seats – one ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Yet what matters most is not who wins more seats, but rather which Knesset member has the best chances of forming a government. The magic number is 61, and reaching it will prove more complicated than it has been in years.

Below is an average of recent polls (not including the last two, although the difference is insignificant), conducted by the independent Project 61. According to the polls, Herzog can count on roughly 41 MKs (from Labor, Meretz and the Arab parties, though the latter will likely not join the government), while Bibi begins with wither 39 (Likud and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party) or 43 seats, in the case that former Shas stalwart Eli Yishai’s new party makes it into the Knesset. [UPDATE: several new polls are out – see at the end of this post].

The rest depends on the ultra-Orthodox (Shas and United Torah Judaism) and centrist parties – Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. Three of those parties will help either Bibi or Herzog become the next prime minister.

But the puzzle is not that simple. Lapid and the ultra-Orthodox can’t really work together (Lapid’s entire campaign was based on drafting the ultra-Orthodox, who are generally exempt from military service, into the IDF); it is not clear whether Liberman’s party will survive the recent round of corruption allegations, and there are many rumors regarding their pre-election agreements or commitments. It is clear, however, that the cost of getting support from centrist parties for either side will be much higher than in previous elections, when there was a clear winner and very few bargaining chips.

poll average, Jan 12 2014 (https://www.facebook.com/Project.61.IL)

poll average, Jan 12 2014 (https://www.facebook.com/Project.61.IL)

But there is one scenario in which all this horse trading doesn’t really matter: the formation of a national unity government (a situation in which one party does not have the margin sufficient to form a government, and must unite with rival political parties to form a coalition). In this case, Labor and Likud will have 47 seats or more (49 according to today’s polls), which makes obtaining 61 seats far easier – and cheaper. All Herzog and Bibi would need is the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties and Liberman.

And there is very little doubt they will join. Liberman already declared national unity as his preferred option (probably after realizing that in his newer, weaker position he will not be the kingmaker), and the ultra-Orthodox’s default position is in the coalition. They won’t stay in the opposition if they can help it.

Bibi and Herzog could decide to split the role of prime minister, as Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres did in between 1984-1988, when each leader served two years as the head of the government. Ministerial portfolios will be allocated according to the relative power of each party.

Bibi knows that these elections are about him, and national unity would very much be in both his and Herzog’s interests. A national unity government would give Netanyahu another two years in power, after which he could either retire honorably or decide to run again, depending on the political circumstances.

As for Herzog, he has a single goal: to become prime minister. The rules are very simple: once you’ve become prime minister, you are always a potential prime minister. Just look at Barak, Peres or Olmert (until his conviction). But losing the election as the head of Labor means rarely getting a second chance.

Once Herzog becomes PM – even for a short while, in rotation with Bibi – he could always run again. For Bibi a national unity government is a good way out. For Herzog it is the prefect threshold for the next round, which could potential take place against former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar.

Labor leader Isaac Herzog, December 10, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Labor leader Isaac Herzog, December 10, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Some pundits claimed this week that Labor’s primaries will make it difficult for Herzog to enter into an agreement with Netanyahu, mostly because Yachimovich, Shafir and some other MKs are supposedly ruling out this option. But Labor also vowed to stay out of the government back in 2009 (Barak even said it on election night!) only to change its mind not long after. Yachimovich, who opposed that coalition agreement, chose not to join the small group of “rebels” who opposed and didn’t request a ministerial position. But neither did she join the MKs who refused to support the coalition. And that was the case when Labor was not even offered a rotation as the head of the government. Can anyone imagine Yachimovich or Shafir refusing what will be described as “a historic opportunity” to regain power for the first time since 2001?

The idea of a national unity government is already being discussed in various political forums. Liberman was the first to support it publically, but others might follow after the elections. Channel 2 recently reported that a source within the president’s circles said that in the case where there is no clear winner, Rivlin will urge party leaders to discuss a national unity deal.

As coalition horse trading continues, the “public demand” for an agreement that would put an end to “political blackmailing” of medium-sized parties will emerge (it always does). And from there on it is only a matter of deciding on who gets what in the new government.

There are those who think that national unity is a good idea. That together the big parties can solve the existential challenges that face Israel: peace, security, inequality. But in reality, the opposite outcome is much more likely. National unity governments cannot bring about substantial reforms on any issue, since their common denominator – the glue that holds them together – is an agreement on the status quo.

The most unlikely reform such a government will undertake has to do with the occupation, because Likud will simply not provide the necessary Knesset majority for any kind of agreement. Nearly every member of the party has vowed to oppose any kind of compromise, let alone the formation of a Palestinian state. While such a government may appear more moderate, and thus has a better chance of delaying some of the international measures being taken against the occupation (which are incredibly slow to take off in any case), the reality on the ground will stay the same – at best.

UPDATE: Several polls have been published since I wrote this post; the updated numbers are slightly more in Labor’s favor, but they don’t change a lot regarding the National Unity scenario. Here is an updated average of the latest polls, published by Project 61.

Polls average Jan 15 2015 (by Project 61 / @project_61_IL)

Polls average Jan 15 2015 (by Project 61 / @project_61_IL)


What the polls say about Netanyahu’s election chances
Pundits’ consensus: Netanyahu is vulnerable

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    1. Kolumn4

      I think Ayelet Shaked also brought up this possibility to argue for people on the Israeli right voting for her party instead of the Likud. This however feels like one of the least likeliest possible outcomes. I have a hard time seeing what Bibi would gain out of such an outcome. Such a unity government would likely collapse very quickly and so what would he gain from it?

      Bibi+Bennett+Haredim = 53 seats. Liberman and Kachlon are unlikely to want to sit in the opposition, so that brings you up to the high 60s in all polling scenarios and allows Bibi to form a reasonably stable government. Herzog on the other hand does not have a viable coalition according to these polls. Why would Bibi share the PM position with Herzog and what would Herzog bring to the table? If Herzog was willing to join a government for a FM or DM position then that would be a different story, but I see no way that Bibi can justify to himself or to the Likud entering an agreement with Herzog to share the PM position.

      Reply to Comment
      • Danny

        If Bibi is dependent on Bennett for his government, then Bennett will rightly demand a PM rotation for himself. Perhaps we will even see both Bennett and Kachlon in the PM’s chair.

        Now, if Herzog can find a way to include the Arabs in his coalition, he has a way of building a government. Unlikely, but not impossible.

        In all scenarios, Netanyahu is either a much-weakened or non-existent PM in the next government.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn4

          What is this nonsense that I hear repeated about people insisting on a turn in the PM chair in return for sitting in a government? If Likud is the biggest party and Bibi forms the government he and only he will be PM.

          Noam’s scenario of a Bibi/Herzog rotation as PM is more plausible than a scenario of the Arab parties sitting in a government that is not dedicated to eliminating Israel. Neither is particularly likely to say the least.

          The most likely scenario is that Netanyahu will be PM again with a right-wing/religious government.

          Reply to Comment
          • Danny

            “What is this nonsense that I hear repeated about people insisting on a turn in the PM chair in return for sitting in a government?”

            In Hebrew it’s referred to as “עבד כי ימלוך”. Pretty simple math: If Bibi needs Bennett to form a government that leaves Herzog out, then Bennett can and should insist on a shared premiership. Since Bennett is no fool, you can expect him to squeeze Bibi where it hurts (especially since he and Bibi have no love lost between them).

            The most likely scenario is that Bibi will be a rotation-based PM and then ungracefully enter retirement.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn4

            Bennett already said he wants the Defense Ministry, which makes sense since it makes him ruler of Judea and Samaria. Kahlon wants the Finance Ministry. Liberman would probably want the Foreign Ministry again but might have to settle for something less prestigious.

            Thats 54-56 MKs. Give the Haredim the Education and Health ministries and give Gafni his committee chairmanship and you have around 68-70 MKs. That is the most likely government and Bibi does not need to share the PM seat.

            Reply to Comment
          • I stay out of the internal comment sandbox now, as some seem to think that throwing sand in one’s face is a national protective act. But here I think K4 right. Bennett is a hothead, but he is young and I think he plans ahead. I also think he is overall considerably more honest than Liberman. B basically acknowledged in D.C. that he is not ready to be PM. I think he would reasonably take the DM as political growth and, as K4 says, it would give him de facto control over his favorites. But it would also likely place him head to head with the Court, if he doesn’t watch himself, and watching himself may not be one of his strong points.

            I think Bennett and Liberman are both quite dangerous, and believe that Bibi and the IDF stopped the Gaza War from sliding much further into political and humanitarian disaster. Much IDF elite has signaled their dislike for Bennett’s Gaza push. So he would likely find push back as DM there too–I can see him trying to alter lines of command.

            I think B knows he has further to go before being comfortable to much of the political and military elite as PM. DM would be a stretch, but, being check by the PM, sustainable on all sides.

            Reply to Comment
      • Pedro X

        It is interesting that both Netanyahu and Livni are both saying that Likud and Labor will not sit together in the Knesset.

        Labor is now calling itself the “Zionist Camp” which precludes very much any Arab party in any coalition with it. Livni is calling the party centrist and Herzog is not disagreeing.

        Kolanu is running a Likud light platform. Bennet is running a nationalist-religious Likud like program.

        Meretz is nowhere to be seen or heard.

        While much can happen and happen at the last moment, I think Israel will have a centrist right wing coalition government again.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Mikesailor

      Does it really matter? I know it won’t to the Palestinians and other non-Jews but would it stop the slide into out-and-out fascism? Or even slow it? I truly doubt such a government would do anything constructive. For the entire idea of a “Jewish” state, an ethnic enclave ruling an oppressed majority through threat and use of violence, is a throwback destined to be consigned to the proverbial “dustbin of history”. It is inherently an unworkable idea. And no “Zionist” party would ever dream of making a coalition with Arab or other non-Jewish parties for that would negate the essence of Zionism itself. So, forget Labor or even Meretz. They are just window dressing for a brutal and racist regime. Let alone the avowed racists in Likud and the other right-wing parties. There is no such thing as a non-racist Zionist for Zionism is predicated on the idea that only one ethnicity/religion/culture matters. And if you’re not Jewish, or even if you are Jewish but believe in universal ideals of equality and justice, then you are not a person but an obstacle to the tribe. So keep shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic and the music will play while you go under.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Richard Witty

      Netanyahu today said no way.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Mikesailor

      Greg: The problem isn’t my opinion. The problem is a racist ideology which presupposes the racial superiority of one religion/ethnicity/culture and uses it to brutalize, humiliate and steal from its neighbors, the indigenous inhabitants of the land. Now, what part of my critique is incorrect? Does it matter which Zionist party takes power? I wouldn’t think so for it never has since the Jews began invading Palestine so many years ago. The only path to freedom, modernity and any type of “liberal” democracy is to drive a stake through the heart of the vampire Zionism and ensure that such a philosophy never can raise its head in any company, polite or otherwise, ever again. So, my question is why you believe that such a country, founded upon such a premise, deserves any consideration? Do you actually believe that which Zionist party taking power actually means anything in the scheme of things? Or is it that you want to believe so badly that you have blinded yourself to reality. Tocqueville was one of the most trenchant observers of the fledgling US precisely because he was not a native and, for the most part, had no axe to grind. Funny how critics of Israel are merely “antisemitic” and therefore dismissed by the tribe.

      Reply to Comment
      • Do I want to believe so badly that I have blinded myself to reality?

        I’m not Jewish. In fact, although you may not believe it, I found out during my mother’s cancer death that she had been hiding the fact that she was 1/4 Cherokee from me; her mother was a “half breed” in a small town in Jim Crow Arkansas, c 1915-35 or so. My mom hid her origin and was quite racist to blacks unto her last days. The man who married my mother’s mother was active in the KKK during those days.

        My view is that Israel just will not go away for quite some time; maybe effectively never, in some form. So what to do. Consider Gerry Adams who, when asked why he did not condemn the “New IRA”‘s attempted round of terrorism (it faltered fairly quickly), replied “If I condemn them, then they won’t talk with me. Then where will we all be?” I suspect Adams was rather useful to Mitchell during the decommissioning negotiations. I, however, will be useful to none. Even so, people must vary to create bridges.

        I hold little hope for the elections, focusing rather
        on Holot, where I see the best possible long term seed; if the Court fails to close Holot next round, that seed will die unplanted. Holot disentangles security from racism. It’s the best chance Israel has right now to change, and its resolution will be an elite matter. I don’t say “vampirism of Zionism” for this would merely further reduce any reading audience, assuming there is one, which is a BIG IF.

        Harry Chapin’s last song, I think:


        Reply to Comment
    5. Mikesailor

      Greg: I remember Harry. I always loved “Cats in the Cradle” and “Taxi”. A bit melancholy but wonderful nonetheless.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Mikesailor

      Greg: Sorry that you mother hid the fact she was 1/4 Cherokee from you. Your forbears went through a hideous chapter in history: being evicted from their indigenous lands and expelled on the “Trail of Tears”. One of the darker chapters in US history. Yet, isn’t what has happened and is presently happening to the Palestinians analogous to what happened to your mother’s ancestors. They are being evicted and brutalized by a foreign interloper which reserves the right to steal their property, kill and wound their children and neighbors all the while exercising an impunity which is despicable no matter how you look at it.
      You hold out hope that the Israeli Supreme Court will exercise judicial power and set up an enforceable judicial review system, using Holot as an example. I look at the rulings of the so-called Court and believe that it will not do or even say anything in the face of the Knesset, the IDF and any other government or settler entity disregarding any court rulings. The Israeli Supreme Court is as relevant to the Israeli policy-making apparatus as the PA. The government doesn’t care for any law which may prevent whatever actions they wish to take and regardless of international law or even basic morality, the Court will either approve of such action or never attempt to enforce their dissenting voice. They are merely window-dressing. And the longer the Court’s rulings are ignored, the less credibility it will ever have. It is the proverbial “rubber stamp”. afraid to rule lest someone call them anti-Zionist. For their rulings make no sense unless viewed in that context anyway. How long did it take the IDF to change the route of the separation fence even after repeated court rulings? And how many Palestinians were executed for protesting a fence already deemed illegal by the Israeli “Supreme Court”? How many settlements deemed illegal by the Court still exist completely intact? Anyway, time will tell but I am not sanguine about the results. Sometimes you have to call out criminals for their behavior . Especially when they view any sort of critique as an affront to their very being. Rather than acquiesce quietly, I call it as I see it and challenge them to show where I am wrong.

      Reply to Comment
      • Mike,

        I generally stay out of the sandbox (as I have come to call it), and in any case have no wish to challenge you. There is no doubt you are quite intelligent and in many respects I cannot deny what you write. But you didn’t respond to the two points I was making, more direct, the only not.

        The direct point is that bridges need to be built/maintained. It feels good to write as concisely and destructively as you do, but at finish I am left wondering what to do, except sign the BDS pledge. So the Gerry Adams quote I provided. Certainly Adams was exposed to people who feel somewhat as you, complete rejectionists, but he ran for Parliament several times anyway, against their anger, winning two or more, never checked how many. He never took his seat because the Parliament would have purged him as first business. But by winning he had used accepted process to produce a platform, and I think that helped eventually to decommission the IRA by making political process plausible. I don’t want you to think like me; it’s really a waste of time to want that. Nor shall I think like you.

        The second, indirect, point is that I came from a family in INTERNAL racial conflict. I know my maternal grandfather was eventually kicked out of the house by his “half breed” wife, who then, in the late 1920’s and 30’s, had to rear 5 children alone (a woman–get it?). And I know that whatever happened left my mother, oldest child, damaged. I, apparently 1/8 Cherokee, am heir to both sides. So are you, really. Brutality usually wins.

        Apart from thinking that what your comment opponents say to you is mostly silly, I stay away because I have discovered an addiction in the verbal combat which, for me, gives a false impression of advance. While you are right that Bil’in took more than 2 years with 2 to 3 deaths (not sure), you leave absolutely nothing else as possibility save, well, BDS on all fronts. The ICC is all well and good, but Israelis must ultimately change Israel. Israelis aren’t going to BDS themselves into nonexistence. Holot is important precisely because it is not about the Conflict, although the government has tried to use the same formulations–which the Court, so far, has rejected, the crucial point. I believe the Court must close Holot for the Court’s own institutional independence; if it does not, and the answer is not forgone, I see no hope at all medium term. In the best scenario, judicial review will have gained significant ground, but Palestinians will still be dying. Without use of review and injunction there is no step back from right nationalism–as was true in the US. This is a necessary first step. And Israelis must come to see the connections between the rule of law and settlement themselves; I place Liberman’s party colleagues before you.

        Nothing I say will ever matter. No influential mind will wait upon my opinion. I can live in fortress anger, my own Protective Edge; or I can provide tiny encouragement for those who have decided to live Israel but want change; or I can go away. I have chosen the second for reason of my own life position.

        Other commenters here want angry replies. They think that is all there is–us and you. The weirdest equate all opposition with “Palestine” or “Islamic extremism.” I have noticed, and I think you have too, that they have a harder time with reasoned comments which force the racial exclusion to law which they must embrace to the surface. Sophisticated anger, adroit use of words, isn’t enough. At least for me. For, you see, they were winning. Their anger had captured me.

        No longer.

        Reply to Comment