The election is boring, but the formation of the next government may be more exciting.
Voters are shifting a bit between parties, mostly on account of two new parties in the center and a newly energized party on the right. What is boring is that the major blocs made up of parties to the right and left of center are similar to what they were in the outgoing Knesset.
The outgoing Knesset looked like this
Extreme right (outside the government)
Power to Israel 2 seats
National unity 2
Right of center to centrist (in the government)
Jewish Home 3
Torah Judaism 5
Israel our Home 15
Center to left of center to extreme left (outside the government)
Democratic Front for Peace and Equality 4 (mostly Arab)
National Democratic Alliance 4 (mostly Arab)
R'am-T"al 3 (mostly Arab)
Recent polling has shown the blocs to the right and left of center more or less at those levels of strength
Power to Israel (extreme right, racist, Kahanist, not likely to be in the government) 2 seats
Parties that might be in the government
Jewish Home 14-15
Likud our Home 34-35
Torah Judaism 6
The Movement led by Tsipi Livni 10
There is a Future 9
Parties likely to be outside and to the left of the government
Democratic Front for Peace and Equality 4
National Democratic Alliance/Arab Democratic Party 4
What is likely to remain the same or similar
The extreme right wing party Power to Israel with 2 seats
Ultra-Orthodox parties SHAS and Torah Judaism with a total of 15-17 seats
Left-of-center Meretz with 3-4 seats
Three largely Arab parties staying with 11 or so seats
There is some moving around in the large realm from right of center to left of center. Kadima is disappearing and supplying its former votes throughout the range from Jewish Home on the right through The Movement, Labor, and There is a Future in the center or a bit to the left of center.
Likud has not done well since combining with Israel our Home. The two parties had 42 seats in the outgoing Knesset and currently have dropped to 34 seats in the lowest of the polls, and might continue to drop. However, Likud our Home remains twice the size of the next largest party, and remains the favorite for creating the next government. The losses of Likud our Home have gone mostly to Jewish Home, i.e., staying within the right of center bloc.
Assuming this line up continues through election day, January 22nd, and that Prime Minister Netanyahu will get the nod from President Peres, after Pres consults with the heads of all the parties and asks them who has the best chance of forming a government, the question is, what will Netanyahu do?
Here is the potential for some excitement, and even change in the nature of Israel's government.
There is, to be sure, a boring alternative that produces more of the same, i.e., Likud our Home together with a larger Jewish Home along with SHAS and Torah Judaism. That will produce a majority of about 66 seats.
The alternative that is within the realm of the possible, or even likely, and can make things interesting, is for Netanyahu to add Yair Lapid's There is a Future. That would produce a stronger majority of 75 or so seats. It would also put in his government two parties (Jewish Home as well as Lapid's There is a Future) whose leaders have expressed themselves in favor of pressure against the Haredim to leave their academies and go into the army and then to work, and to pay something closer to the taxes imposed on Israelis generally.
There has long been tension and even animosity between the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox. Jewish Home's new leader, Naftali Benet, is more outspoken than his predecessors in saying that the Heredim must do their share in the military and the economy.
Likud our Home, Jewish Home, and There is a Future without the ultra-Orthodox parties would not be enough to produce a majority of the Knesset. If Labor and The Movement would also join the government, Netanyahu could have a coalition with a large majority in the mid-70s without the Haredim. If one of the three center-left parties stayed out, Netanyahu could still create a government with about 67 seats, but without the ultra-Orthodox.
The combinations are intriguing, and the difficulties considerable. Involved in the negotiations will not only which parties will agree to enter the coalition, but in exchange for what. At issue will be the document that expresses the intentions of the government, but that will not be the hardest nut. Israeli politicians, like their counterparts elsewhere, know how to formulate ideas that sound great without imposing painful commitments. More difficult will be the assignment of ministries. Just to identify two prominent examples, it will be important to Labor who gets the Finance Ministry, and it will be important to The Movement who gets the Foreign Ministry. Currently Netanyahu is promising the Foreign Ministry to Lieberman, to be held open for some time while Lieberman deals with his judicial problem. It is hard to imagine that the free-enterprise Netanyahu will let the all important Finance Ministry go to the socialists of Labor or to anyone who would make them happy.
Most difficult for Netanyahu might be the creation of a government without the ultra-Orthodox. Not only do they contribute to his emphasis of Yiddishkeit, but they have moved over the years from indifference about settlement to supporting settlement with the creation of two major Haredi towns, Modiin Ilit and Beitar Ilit, on the Palestinian side of the "Green Line," i.e., the 1967 borders. With the Haredim in the government, Lapid may be disinclined to join. Or if he did join, the tension between the Haredim, Lapid, and his party colleagues, as well as with Jewish Home, might make Israeli politics more interesting after the election than during the election campaign.
What is likely to remain the same is what will come from the stability in the major voting blocs. Right of center parties had 71 seats in the outgoing Knesset, and seem likely to have at least 66 seats in the incoming Knesset (or 75 assuming, as expected, that There is a Future joins the government).
Why the stability?
Blame Hamas, or more broadly the problems in reaching agreement with Palestinians.
Recent polls have shown a majority of Israelis, including a large number of voters who support right of center parties, in favor of dividing the West Bank and Jerusalem with the Palestinians for the sake of peace. However, less than a majority of Israelis expect that such a deal can come to pass. While the left blames Netanyahu for intransegence, a large part of the center and the right, along with media commentators from all parts of the spectrum put much of the blame on internal problems of the Palestinians. Creating this pessimism is not only the past rejections of Israeli offers by Arafat and Abbas, but also the strength of Hamas and parties even more extreme, which adhere to rejecting Israel's right to exist anywhere in what they call Palestine.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem