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Putting together Netanyahu's next coalition might be trickier than it seems

Netanyahu will continue to serve as prime minister after the upcoming elections, but putting together a governing coalition will have significant long-term implications.

The headline result of the upcoming elections in Israel, as Noam Sheizaf has thoroughly documented, is not in doubt. Benjamin Netanyahu will continue as Israel’s prime minister for another term, and will strive to maintain his policy of status quo in every area of policy.

Nonetheless, there are at least two aspects of uncertainty in these elections. First, the potential for more significant changes in areas not related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (such as economic policy or secular-religious relations). Second, these election results could shape the dynamics of the following elections, in which a different outcome is certainly possible (especially considering the incredible volatility of Israeli politics over the past two decades).

To understand these elements of uncertainty, one must examine the different scenarios for post-elections coalition formation. Netanyahu will win, but like all of Israel’s previous prime ministers, his party will not have enough seats to form a government on its own.

The most natural composition of a Likud-led coalition would be what Noam has labeled the right-Orthodox bloc, which will almost certainly hold a majority in the next Knesset. Netanyahu has been reluctant to rely on this formation exclusively, which has brought him down for the slightest of compromises in his first premiership in the 1990s. But having this option would strengthen his hand in discussions with other potential partners.

Right now, the greatest threat for this scenario comes from two tiny parties, struggling to gain enough votes to reach the threshold necessary to get seats in the Knesset.

Am Shalem is an unconventional and hard-to-classify party, a splinter of the ultra-orthodox Shas party, which is nonetheless running hard against current ultra-Orthodox leadership, arguing for modernization in this community. It is likely to draw the majority of its votes from the right-Orthodox bloc, yet it is hard to envisage its participation in a coalition which includes the very parties it is running against.

The second tiny party is Otzma LeYisrael, a far-right party. It will take all its votes from the right-Orthodox block, but its prospects of joining the coalition are unclear. Netanyahu might balk at relying on such rabid extremists, and they could actually prefer the opposition, where they would not be tainted by compromise and could snipe at their slightly-less-hard-right colleagues at Likud-Beitenu and Habayit Hayehudi, helping them to grow in the next elections.

Right now, these two tiny parties seem unlikely to impair the right-Orthodox majority, which is poised to gain at least 64 (of 120) seats without them, according to +972’s Poll Tracker. However, when it comes to tiny parties, especially new ones such as these, the polls are structurally incapable of properly assessing their strength. Even the best polls have a margin of error of at least 3 percent, whereas these parties are struggling to get less than that.

Furthermore, the polls themselves may play a role in the result, as voters strategically wait to see if these parties can even pass the minimal threshold of 2 percent to get seats in the Knesset before deciding whether to vote for them. Indeed, this may be the main hindrance these parties face, as their message seems to be resonating with many voters. A late surge in the polls, even an erroneous one, could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and vice versa.

What happens if Netanyahu is denied the option of forming a stable right-Orthodox coalition, thereby greatly strengthening the bargaining position of potential partners outside the bloc? What would be his path of least resistance?

Hatnua, the dovish sui generis party of former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, will probably be at the bottom of his list. Despite being a former member of Likud, Netanyahu’s own party, Livni has positioned herself as the champion of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians, which would involve significant territorial concessions. Nothing could be further from Netanyahu’s mind. Livni, who has given up the prime minister’s seat in the past to maintain her principles, is unlikely to be tempted to give them up for the much more junior position that Netanyahu might offer in her return.

Yesh Atid, another sui generis party headed by political neophyte and media personality Yair Lapid, is a much more comfortable partner for Netanyahu. It will certainly not give him any headaches on the Palestinian issue. However, Lapid has promoted himself as the champion of the overburdened Jewish-secular middle class. The emblematic issues of recruiting the ultra-Orthodox to the military and getting them from the Yeshivas to the labor market are an important part of his political brand. If he insists on them, it might make him incompatible with the ultra-Orthodox parties – an essential partner for Netanyahu. If he folds on these issues, he would be the ideal partner.

The Labor Party presents a more complicated picture. On the one hand, its leader, Shelly Yachimovich, seems to be the best fit for Netanyahu. She has prioritized neither the Palestinian issue (on which she is much more to the right than Labor’s traditional positions) nor the religious-secular fissure.

Instead, her obsession is with economic policy, where she wants to significantly increase spending on social programs and increase taxes on the wealthy. Netanyahu, despite his neoliberal inclinations, has proven flexible on these issues, and he could certainly work on them with Yachimovich who is actually much more pragmatic than her firebrand image, and much more in tune on this issue with many Likud voters and backbenchers than Netanyahu himself.

However, unlike Lapid and Livni’s parties, which are likely to follow their leaders quite blindly, Labor is anything but sui generis. As Israel’s oldest party, by some counts, it is famously patricidal towards its leaders, and could as easily turn matricidal towards the second woman leader in its history (just as it did for its first, Golda Meir, caving to protests following the disastrous Yom Kippur War).

Already, Yachimovich’s right turn on the Palestinian issue is producing serious grumbles in the ranks. Most dissenters have chosen to ditch the party altogether for Livni, but enough have remained to make trouble for her and Netanyahu, should a coalition be formed. That is precisely what they did in the current Knesset when they drove out Labor’s previous leader, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, after he formed a coalition with Likud. Ironically, in that round, Yachimovich was one of the dissenters, and refused to sit in Netanyahu’s government, certainly not an auspicious omen for a Likud-Labor coalition re-make.

So, Netanyahu will certainly be prime minister, but the stability of his second term will be far less certain. A lot depends on two tiny parties, whose support is nearly impossible to estimate in advance, along with the major parties of the center-left bloc, all of which are running on untested platforms. An internally divided and discordant coalition could mean an opportunity for whomever remains in opposition, and could offer a compelling alternative to dissatisfied Israeli voters in the next elections.

Read more: 
The rise of the extreme right is the story of the Israeli elections
What’s the deal with Shelly Yachimovich?

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    1. “polls themselves may play a role in the result, as voters strategically wait to see if these parties can even pass the minimal threshold of 2 percent to get seats in the Knesset before deciding whether to vote for them. Indeed, this may be the main hindrance these parties face, as their message seems to be resonating with many voters. A late surge in the polls, even an erroneous one, could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and vice versa.” : This is an interesting point. I wonder if there is any evidence that such a thing might have happened in the past? But I don’t know how much party fragmentation there was in the past. Someone like D. Scheindlin might know.

      “reaching an agreement with the Palestinians, which would involve significant territorial concessions” : If the land is occupied, how can the occupier be giving “territorial concessions?” I can see assuming risk by exiting some of the land; but that is not a territorial concession when one’s own territory is not in play.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        They are territorial concessions regardless of the status of the land. I control it one day. If I give it to you I have made concessions. If I have a hundred dollars that I believe is mine and you believe is yours regardless of how many other people agree with you I shall still see giving you fifty dollars as a concession. In any case you are unlikely to find too many Israelis sympathetic to the argument that the Western Wall for example is ‘occupied’ territory regardless of how many UN resolutions you might cite.

        Reply to Comment
        • Your hundred dollars was usurped. By saying “I have a hundred dollars” often enough, and refusing any other voice, you try and create what you hold in hand as the natural state. If a bank defrauds me but it takes me 20 years to find out, I have still been defrauded. But there is a statute of limitations. What Israel is doing, as are you, is asserting ownership in the hope that a magical statute of limitations will kick in; the settlements, overall, have achieved exactly this. The property value of these has increased soley through Israeli actions; it would be unjust to take it from them!

          As to the Western Wall, there is a mosque which has as much, probably more, actually, meaning to Muslims. But if you would restrain your “it must be” to the Western Wall, it would be a miraculous advance.

          These are all just word past times. The game is set for full creep into the Bank, with bantu PA administration as convient. You will tell us all along that it is because the PA will not accept what must be; but you will, in any case, make your must be all the while.

          I truly hope I am shown wrong, that some deal is made and holds. But I cannot see that now.

          Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            We believe that the land is ours. We were defrauded of it once and now we are back to reclaim it. If there are other claimants for the land that is fine but don’t expect us to pretend that the land isn’t ours to satisfy your beliefs on the matter. The Western Wall just makes this position as entirely obvious as possible. You seem to be ignorant on the significance of that site, which somewhat explains your position on the matter.

            The Palestinians have been made reasonable offers to partition the land that they have rejected because of an inability to accept an end to the conflict which leaves Israel alive. That leaves only unilateral options for Israel until the Palestinians change their position on the matter.

            Reply to Comment
          • Then your warrant is based on that of Yahweh, who indeed defrauded it from prior residents with zeal. The position is absurd.

            As to the Western Wall, I’m certain many Israelis see it has an archeological site of great significance, and now on top of the area is a religious site of significance to others as well. This is distinct from saying “it is ours.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            My warrant is based on Israel being the only homeland of the Jewish people. Yahweh optional.

            You have no idea what you are talking about when referring to the Western Wall. This is pure ignorance on your part.

            Reply to Comment
    2. The Trespasser

      >“reaching an agreement with the Palestinians, which would involve significant territorial concessions” : If the land is occupied, how can the occupier be giving “territorial concessions?” I can see assuming risk by exiting some of the land; but that is not a territorial concession when one’s own territory is not in play.

      Didn’t you read Mya’s recent article?

      It is clearly stated there that Palestinians want ENTIRE Palestine back, from the river to the sea.

      As of occupation – some until today consider Tel Aviv and Haifa as occupied Arab lands.

      So yes, any kind of peace agreement will have to include territorial concessions, which is why there won’t be any agreement.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Alon Levy

      I think the right-Orthodox bloc is more stable than you portray it, for two reasons, one mathematical and one political.

      The mathematical reason is that the polls’ margin of error is much smaller than 3 percentage points for small parties. For a party that gets a proportion of the vote equal to p, the polls’ margin of error is proportional to the square root of p(1-p). This is maximized when p = 0.5. So, for example, for a perfectly random 500-person poll, a party with 30% of the vote will have a margin of error of 4%, while a party with 3% of the vote will have a margin of error of 1.5%. Moreover, it’s quite rare to hit the margin of error, which is a 95% confidence interval; for comparison, in the 538 prediction for the US election, at no point was Obama ahead by more than the margin of error, and the final win probability was 91%, whereas the margin of error is set where the probability is 97.5%.

      The political reason is that there is no current crisis within the coalition. There was one earlier this year with the Tal law, but there was no vote of no confidence, and Bibi managed to mollify both Israel Beitenu and the ultra-Orthodox parties. On top of that, Shas and UTJ have consistently proved to be relatively cheap to buy, since Bibi is not an ideological liberal in the way Ale Yarok is and doesn’t mind giving them the (small) funds they need to keep backing his main political and economic agendas.

      Reply to Comment
      • Thank you, Alon. Because it is difficult to pick up a relatively rare thing, if you do, its probably out there; I take this to be an inexact wording of what you say. Nonetheless, there could be a lock in effect across pollings. The first says “my kind” are out there, so I shift in the next poll, causing a possible greater showing, which might move some more in the same direction. In a system with a threshold for parliamentary representation, this might lead some to so risk their vote. I tend to think opinions on the margin are maintained by group identity processes, so rather immune to what I’m suggesting; yet, stragglers might be brought on board this way.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Opinions on the margin might be maintained by group identity processes but their voters are still largely strategic in trying to avoid having their vote be ignored. The core groups behind Am Shalem and Otzma are tiny and the overwhelming majority of voters that push them past the threshold are subject to strategic voting.

          Reply to Comment
          • Some will vote for what they believe in, not strategically at all, if they expect that block to get into the system. This steadfastness is no different that the settler who lives in an arid land for what he believes.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            There is very little there to believe in or very few who believe in it. Am Shalem is a personality-based party with no real ideology. If it looks iffy on making it into the Knesset it will get very tiny numbers of votes with the rest voting strategically. Otzma, or at least the Ben-Ari/Marzel/Ben-Gvir part of it is basically Kahanist, an ideology whose core constituents number in the low thousands. The rest of the Otzma voters are just people who are trying to vote as far right as possible but who are subject to strategic voting.

            Reply to Comment
      • Piotr Berman

        I think your math is wrong. For small parties the margin of error is much smaller than your calculation. However, as a practical matter, they are much more affected by the sampling error, i.e. the procedure used to collect the sample.

        Reply to Comment