Israel’s elections have everyone’s heads spinning. Nearly a week has passed and the results (contrary to my predictions) have remained unchanged: Kadima has 28 seats, one more than Likud’s 27. Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu on the right has 15, and Labor on the left has 13. The two ultra-orthodox parties (call them center-right), Shas and UTJ, have 11 and 5 seats respectively, and are likely to go as a bloc of 16. Two small right-wing parties, Jewish Home and the National Union, have 3 and 4 seats respectively. Jewish Home is likely to join a government under Netanyahu, while National Union is not. On the other hand, you have the far-left, yet Jewish-Zionist, party Meretz at 3 seats. And you have the Arab parties (Hadash, Balad, and Raam-Taal) totalling 11, but they are not considered reasonable partners for either a Likud- or a Kadima-led government.
Nor have the major calculations changed as far as overall camps are concerned: The right can put together a coalition of 61 (not including National Union) without Kadima or Labor. The center-left cannot reach the crucial mark of 61 without Lieberman or Likud.
So, what’s going to happen?
Nobody really knows, and I have given up on predictions. But here are some basic issues:
1. Three different parties won the election. Kadima got the most seats in the Knesset. Likud is almost certainly going to head the governing coalition, putting Netanyahu as prime minister, either in rotation with Livni or entirely on his own. And Yisrael Beiteinu jumped to 15 seats and is basically playing the role of right-wing kingmaker. All three parties are in a similar position: any of the two can combine to form a government.
2. Netanyahu prefers a broad coalition with both Kadima and Lieberman. The last thing he needs is to be branded around the world as the head of an extremist government.
3. Lieberman will have a hard time sitting in the same government with Shas (11 seats), the religious-right party that branded him an agent of the devil. But it will be much easier to pull that off under Netanyahu than under Livni.
4. Yesterday Tzipi Livni announced that she will not be number 2 to Netanyahu, and has cast an ultimatum: Either we share the government equally, with a rotating prime-ministership, or we’re in the opposition. (“Twenty-eight,” she correctly points out, “is greater than twenty-seven”) But there’s a real question as to whether she can survive in the opposition. Her party does not have either a tradition of loyalty or a coherent worldview, and we have already begun hearing rumblings from the camp of Shaul Mofaz, the former defense minister who lost the Kadima primary to Livni and commands the party’s hawkish side. There’s some chance that the party would split, with Mofaz taking a bunch of seats over to the Likud-led government. So she has called Bibi’s bluff, and the big question is whether Bibi will call hers.
5. Another open question is whether President Shimon Peres will offer to let Livni or Bibi try to make a government first. In theory, he’s supposed to ask all the parties what they think, and go with the leader recommended by the greatest number of Knesset seats. But every party is using this fact to jockey for bargaining position, with few of them saying who they’ll recommend. Lieberman, Shas, and UTJ have all kept quiet.
Of course, there is always the possibility of each side climbing too far up its rhetorical tree, resulting in another deadlock. Ultimately, the threat of having new elections is likely to put enough pressure on everybody to come up with something. But right now, it’s a big mess.