Coalitions of the Willing

Based on the exit polling, it looks like the two major Israeli political parties – Likud and Kadima – will get a bit under 50% of the Knesset seats between them. Two smaller major parties would split a bit under 50% of the remaining seats – Labor, once the party of the state but now much reduced, and Yisrael Beiteinu, the once-minor far-right party that I have been predicting for years was on its way to major-party status. Something between 25% and 32% of the seats will go to other minor parties – ultra-Orthodox religious parties, Arab-dominated parties, the secular-left Meretz party, the far-right religious National Union party, and various special interest parties.

No center-left coalition will be possible – that much we know. The only question is whether there will be a government of national unity or a right-wing coalition. Both Netanyahu and Livni have stated that they would form national unity governments, but neither is willing to join a government headed by the other (so they say).

Now, a national unity government is normally only formed in response to a serious national crisis, something that you really do want national unity to respond to. In the absence of such a crisis you don’t generally get such governments – and you don’t want them, as they leave the government basically unaccountable. What, praytell, is the crisis that would require a national unity government?

I can think of only three possibilities. They are not mutually exclusive.

1. Keeping Avigdor Liberman out of government. This is a worthy goal, as Yisrael Beiteinu’s platform calls for things like revoking the citizenship of Israeli Arabs that are flatly illegal under international law. Yisrael Beiteinu has been in government before, of course, but the stronger it gets the more one has to worry.

If this is the objective (and I don’t think it is), then Kadima has more leverage to demand a senior position in the coalition than it initially appears. Here’s the thing about keeping Liberman out of power, though: if there’s a national-unity government, he becomes leader of the opposition. Which is generally a good pulpit – a better one, in many ways, than being a minister in the government for a demagogue like Liberman. So if you’re an outside observer hoping for a national-unity government for this reason, consider the likely downside: that this government will be another failure (likely) and that Liberman will only be stronger by the time of the next elections.

2. Initiating a large-scale withdrawal from the bulk of the West Bank. Netanyahu claims to want to build up the Palestinian economy. Livni claims to want to make rapid progress towards the creation of a Palestinian state. Both will face at least some pressure from the United States to make confidence-building unilateral moves on some scale. One obvious move that would be consistent with all three objectives would be a freeze on new settlements, dismantling of settlements that are illegal under Israeli law, and announcement of plans to consolidate far-flung settlements across the Green Line.

Do I expect either coalition to do such a thing immediately? No. The internal political cost of such measures would be very high, and so I doubt any Israeli government is going to be interested in paying it. Rather, I expect the West Bank withdrawal to happen in large-scale and relatively quickly, at a point where the governing coalition thinks it can accomplish its goals in one fell swoop. That’s basically what Barak did in Lebanon and what Sharon did in Gaza.

Could a right-wing coalition make such a move? Well, if Netanyahu, leading a right-wing coalition, felt the need to take such a bold step, he’d lose his coalition and remain in power only with either a new coalition or the support of non-coalition members who supported the policy, because there is no reason for parties to Likud’s right to go along. And at the next election Likud would get massacred and Yisrael Beiteinu would be the new leader of the right. That, in fact, is probably what Liberman is hoping for: to be part of a right-wing coalition that collapses when Netanyahu tries to initiate a West Bank pullback, wait out the pullback and the aftermath, and then win the subsequent election. After all, a unilateral withdrawal is not inconsistent with Yisrael Beiteinu’s policy of ethnic separation.

Based on the above, it’s not obvious to me that there’s that much difference between a national unity government and a right-wing government in terms of the impact on Likud, on the assumption that Netanyahu sees or will see the writing on the wall and knows he’s going to have to initiate a pullback in the West Bank. In either case, Yisrael Beiteinu gets stronger at Likud’s expense. But for Kadima, there’s a huge difference between being part of a national unity government and being the leader of a left-wing coalition when such an undertaking is begun. So if this is the reason why there needs to be a national-unity government, then Netanyahu holds the stronger cards.

3. An attack on Iran. If Israel is planning to attack Iranian nuclear installations, it will need American acquiescence at a minimum. Netanyahu is going to have a harder time getting that on his own than he would as part of a national-unity government – particularly if that government includes Labor.

Do I think Israel is planning an attack on Iran? No. But that would certainly be something that justified a national unity government – a very broad one. And in this case, it’s pretty clear that Kadima holds the stronger cards.

When all the posturing is done, I expect a national unity government to form led by whichever party garnered the most seats and including Kadima, Likud, Labor and (as a religious fig-leaf), United Torah Judaism. If the exit polls are right, that coalition will be led by Kadima. That will also mean Yisrael Beiteinu heads a right-wing opposition comprising three parties – Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, and National Union/Bayit Yehudi – with more seats between them than any single coalition-member party. There will be much gnashing of teeth about the fact that the voters picked a right-wing coalition and will get a left-wing government. But them’s the breaks in a proportional-rep system – and anyway, that conclusion presumes that what Israeli voters “really” want is a policy of intransigence. Whereas, what I think they really want is the same policy of strategic retreat pursued by a coalition that they feel they can count on to be sufficiently brutal towards the Palestinians in application.