Tentative results of the Israeli elections are as follows:
Kadima (centrist): 28 seats
Likud (center-right): 27 seats
Yisrael Beiteinu (right, secularist): 15 seats
Labor (center-left): 13 seats
Shas (right, religious): 11 seats
United Torah Judaism (religious): 5 seats
National Union (far-right): 4 seats
Hadash (Arab-dominated): 4 seats
Ta’al (Arab): 4 seats
Meretz (left): 3 seats
Jewish Home (far-right): 3 seats
Balad (Arab): 3 seats
You need 61 seats to form a coalition. That gives us the following possible coalitions:
1. Likud-led options.
1(a). Right-wing only coalition: 65 seats. This is a “natural” coalition. But it’s not the coalition Netanyahu wants, because it will paralyze and isolate him, leaving him captive to the various extreme elements in his coalition and vulnerable internationally. The key fact about the current moment is that there’s not actually very much difference between Labor, Kadima and Likud on core policy questions related to the “situation.” All favored the war in Gaza. All ultimately favor giving up the bulk of the West Bank. All are pessimistic about the short-term prospect of actual negotiations with either Hamas or Fatah. All are keenly interested in a deal with Syria. All are seriously worried about a nuclear Iran. The divisions relate more to demographic elements, personality differences, the “who do you trust?” factor, and so forth. That being the case, Netanyahu does not want a right-wing coalition that will prevent him from moving to the left when he sees the need. Without National Union and Jewish Home, who would bolt at the prospect of a deal with Syria or the removal of any settlements, the coalition would break (and could be patched only by the addition of Labor and/or Kadima). Moreover, Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas have diametrically opposed positions on the religious/secular divide. How important these will turn out to be in putting together an initial coalition remains a question, but neither Eli Yishai nor Avigdor Lieberman can afford to be completely casual about questions that are great motivators for their voters.
1(b). Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu-Labor-Shas: 66 seats. This is the most “unnatural” coalition, a coalition of opposites against the center. It leaves out the Arab parties (13 seats), the far-right settler-oriented parties (7 seats), and the left-wing Meretz party (3 seats), and it leaves the centrist Kadima party (the largest faction) as the leader of the opposition. This party could make some moves to the left (a Syria deal, for example, if one were in the offing), but could not undertake any other fundamental reforms because of the contradictions of the coalition. It’s probably more likely than the right-wing coalition, though, because Labor probably has no future sitting in opposition alongside Kadima, and Netanyahu would far prefer Labor as a partner to the far-right parties. United Torah Judaism would probably join with Shas, bringing the total coalition to 71 seats, but such a coalition would still be vulnerable to the defection of any other single party in the coalition.
2. Kadima-led options.
2(a). Kadima-Labor-Yisrael Beiteinu-United Torah Judaism: 61 seats. This is really the only plausible Kadima-led coalition without Likud, and it isn’t terribly plausible. The coalition would be formed if Kadima could win Avigdor Lieberman’s support by promising to implement certain elements of his secular agenda and/or government reform agenda, which would make coalition with Shas impossible. Since Likud cannot form a coalition without Kadima unless it has both Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas in the coalition, an agreement between Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu makes a Likud-led coalition impossible. The remaining assumptions necessary to make for this coalition to be possible are first, Bibi doesn’t go for a national-unity government, and second, for Livni to successfully bribe UTJ to join her coalition.
2(b). Other Kadima-led options. Theoretically, you could have Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu both sit in a Kadima-led coalition without Likud, but I don’t see why. Theoretically, you could have a minority left-religious coalition (Kadima-Labor-Shas-UTJ) supported from the outside by the Arab parties and Meretz, but I don’t think you can form a government in the first place without 61 seats (even if afterwards the other side needs a majority to vote no-confidence) and I don’t see how they get to a 61-seat coalition, and besides I don’t know that the Arab parties would play ball, and besides I don’t think Kadima would even want such a coalition.
3. National-unity options.
3(a). Kadima-Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu: 70 seats. This is probably the strongest possible coalition from the various alternatives articulated here. Without the religious parties, it would be possible to advance fundamental electoral reform (raising the vote percentage needed for entry to the Knesset, for example) and potentially part of Yisrael Beiteinu’s secular agenda. There would be a general agreement in the short-term on policies towards the Palestinians. The great danger of this coalition is for Likud, because it would be sticking the knife in its traditional partner (Shas) by supporting Lieberman’s agenda. If it could be organized, such a coalition could make great and necessary strides internally. Whether that is worth paying the price of empowering Lieberman’s party depends on how dangerous you think he is. I take a fairly negative view myself, but that’s because I think the biggest risk to Israel’s viability as a democracy comes from the increasingly radical alienation of the bulk of Israel’s Arab sector, a problem Lieberman would “solve” by driving them out of Israel.
3(b). Kadima-Likud-Labor: 68 seats. Without either Yisrael Beiteinu or the religious parties, this would be a true government of national unity, the center against the extremes. This would be a logical coalition if Kadima and Labor planned to merge into a single center-left coalition, as indeed they probably ultimately should, but Labor almost certainly does not want to do. An agreement by Kadima and Labor to sit together in coalition or in opposition would pretty much force Netanyahu to choose between this coalition or a right-wing-only coalition. That would be a tough choice for him, as this coalition would clearly force Likud into the junior-partner role, but the right-wing coalition would have all the disadvantages articulated above. This coalition would probably be the most effective at winning international support for whatever Israel decides to do. Because this coalition would leave Yisrael Beiteinu as the leader of the opposition, though, it is probably the coalition that would lead to the greatest gain for Yisrael Beiteinu in the next election cycle.
3©. Kadima-Likud-Shas: 66 seats. With Likud’s traditional partner in the coalition, this government would be the mirror-image of 3(b): a national-unity government that would, in practice, be Likud-dominated. There would be no prospects for a reform agenda, but there would probably be enough flexibility for any necessary moves internationally. This coalition would be risky for Kadima for the same reasons that 3(b) would be risky for Likud.
3(d). Other national unity options. Without any of Yisrael Beiteinu, Labor or Shas, a national-unity government cannot get to 61 seats (UTJ has only 5 seats, which brings you to 60). A broader coalition containing more than one of these three possible coalition partners for Kadima-Likud is, however, very plausible; indeed, both Kadima and Likud have reasons to want to have at least 2 of those 3 parties in the coalition.
Immediately after the exit polls came out, I said that I considered 3(b) the most likely coalition. Having now gone through the various options, it’s clear that Yisrael Beiteinu is in a much stronger position than I originally thought, and I understand better why Livni is so eager to secure an agreement with them before anything else: because that’s the surest route to her not being either frozen out of the coalition or reduced to effective junior-partner status.