There�s a long way to go until Israel�s vote for the 18th
Knesset � about six weeks � but the first poll held after current ruling party
Kadima announced its list of candidates late Wednesday shows Kadima and its
only real competitor in this race, former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu�s
right-wing Likud, with an equal number of seats. Ma�ariv, Israel�s
largest Hebrew-language evening paper, published a poll Friday giving each
party 30 of the 120 seats in the Knesset.
But perhaps the bigger story is that the left-wing parties�
seats now outnumber the right-wing parties,� leaving out the religious parties
and the Arabs (for the moment). Labor and Meretz (the social democrats) would
add another 19 seats to Acting Prime Minister Tzipi Livni�s 30, giving her 49
total, while the ultra-right-wing Jewish Home and Yisrael Beiteinu parties can
provide only 17 to Netanyahu�s for a total of 47. For the first time in the
polling over the past two months, the left has more votes than the right, if
one considers the self-styled �centrist� Kadima to be on the left.
But neither Livni nor Netanyahu can form a majority
government without 61 seats. So they�re both going to have to go to the
religious parties, because even if Livni did approach the Arabs to join
a coalition, their 10 seats will still leave her two seats too few. The
Sephardi religious party Shas has nine seats to offer either Livni or Netanyahu
according to the Ma�ariv poll, but
Livni�s negotiations two months ago to form a government with Shas as a member
failed, and there has been nothing but rancor from Shas toward her since then.
The good news for Livni is that, for the first time since
the party was founded in 1992, United Torah Judaism will not run a combined
list of its two Ashkenazi factions, Agudat Yisrael (Chasidic Jews) and Degel
ha-Torah (so-called Lithuanian Jews). The factions will instead run separate
lists. This means that Livni does not have to convince both Ashkenazi religious
parties to join her coalition. She can make a deal with one of them and, provided she has the Arabs on board, she
can leave the other out in the cold, should she so choose. Of course, it would
be wise for any potential Prime Minister to consider bringing in as large a
coalition as possible, as the probability of dropping out of a coalition in
Israel is about 100%, but Livni at least has a bit of breathing room with
regard to the Ashkenazi religious parties and less back-room bargaining to have
to do if she is the next Prime Minister. But
the Arabs have to be in her
Netanyahu, needless to say, cannot count on the Arab parties
to put him over the 61-vote threshold. With 47 seats before approaching the religious
parties, he will need Shas to be in a coalition with him. Given the way Shas
has tended to behave since its remarkable (and only impressive) 1999 electoral
showing, their demands will be significant and they will undoubtedly pull out
of a Netanyahu-led government as soon as he crosses them.
But Shas in a Netanyahu coalition only amounts 56 seats
according to the Ma�ariv poll. All the rest of the religious parties�
seats combined give him the 61 seats he needs, but it would be an unstable
coalition that would fall apart the minute he made any concession that one of
the coalition members found distasteful. He lost coalition members in the
1990s, not for ceding any Palestinian land but merely for agreeing to redeploy
tanks and troops outside a single city, i.e., Hebron.
By leaving out Shas, Livni avoids the most problematic party
in the State of Israel and, thus, promises a more stable government. But, as
noted, it�s a long time till the election, and much can happen in six weeks.
That a Netanyahu-led coalition would be short-lived is little comfort when one
considers how much damage can be done in such a volatile region in so little
The bottom line comes down to Livni needing the Arabs to
back her more than the Arabs need her or any other potential Prime Minister.
That�s an enviable position to be in, if you�re an Israeli Arab � a rare
occasion for that demographic group, to be sure. Israeli Arabs and religious
parties have served in coalitions together in the past � even under Menachem
Begin, unbelievably � and there�s no reason to think that they still can�t.
Livni just has to be brave and accept that the inevitable
criticisms from the Netanyahu-led right wing are less important than
establishing a lasting peace with the Palestinians. And, what with the high
Arab voter turnout in the Kadima primary, she does now owe the Arab sector at
least one favor � probably more. Unless there is a precipitous decline in the
polling number for the Likud, which is doubtful, Livni will have to include the
Arabs in a coalition. They can make or break the government. If Livni is smart,
she�ll do the right thing.
Terrall is a freelance journalist who has written more than a bit about Haiti
since the February 2004 U.S.-backed coup which ousted the democratically
elected government of Jean-Bertrand