Getting to 61

To form a government in Israel, a candidate for Prime Minister must assemble a parliamentary majority of 61 seats. In this week’s election, neither of the two top parties, (Likud and Kadima) made it even half way there.

To make matters more difficult, 11 seats went to Arab parties. These outfits traditionally do not join Israeli governments. Moreover, given their attitidue towards the Jewish state, a politician who tried to form a government with the support of these parties would, I assume, instantly become a political outcast.

Thus, forming a government requires, in effect, not 61 out of 120 seats, but 61 out of 109.

Neither Likud nor Kadima faces an easy path. Kadima’s, indeed, seems virtually impossible. As I do the math, even if Kadima were somehow to bring in the ultra-nationalist Israel Beitenu party (which is considered to the “right” of Likud) and still manage to hold the support of the parties to the left of Kadima (Labour and Meretz), Kadima would still be a few seats short of 61. It would then have to gain the support of the religious parties, something it was unable to do last fall.

Likud is in a better position. Adding its seats to those of Israeli Beitenu and the religious parties produces a total of 65. The problem, though, is that such a right-wing coalition would make Likud’s leader Benjamin Netanyahu the captive of the religious parties, and leave him with far less flexibility than he wants (and less than he may need in order to keep Israel’s relations with the Obama administration from blowing up).

This is why Likud will negotiate with Kadima in an effort to form a “national unity” government with Netanyahu in charge. The problem here is that such a government might well leave Netanyahu without the flexibility he needs to deal with Israel’s enemies and, in particular, to respond as he sees fit to Iran’s nuclear threat. In this scenario, the will of the Israeli people would be thwarted, as well. Most observers believe that the right-wing parties outpolled the left-wing parties this time precisely because Israelis favor a considerably harder line towards Israeli’s enemies, especially Iran, than Kadima has been willing to take.

Because Kadima appears to have slightly outpolled Likud, it will be all Netanyahu can do to get its leader, Tzipi Livni, to agree to Netanyahu as the Prime Minister. In exchange, Kadima will almost certainly demand the Foreign and Defense ministries. At that point, Netanyahu faces the prospect of losing full control over the issues that matter most to him and that led to the comeback of his party.

In short, all scenarios seem untenable. But right now, the smart money seems to be on a national unity government.

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