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What Kind of a Coalition Will Lead the Next Israeli Government?

Last weekend I queried a fellow Zionist and Israeli ex-pat in Europe on this week’s Knesset general election.  His one cautionary note was “don’t believe the polls in Israel, they are usually wrong.” He added: “the only poll that counts in Israel is at the ballot box”.  His assumption was that Netanyahu might hopefully win a significant mandate and lead a center right coalition government.  Wrong.

When I spoke with my friend just after the exit polls were released,  it was clear that Netanyahu may have won a narrow victory with his Likud –Yisroel Beiteinu list  capturing  31 seats, a loss of 11 seats from his margin in the 2009 Knesset elections.  The big surprise given pre-election prognostications was that Labor under the leadership of Shelly Yacimovich would likely come in second, it didn’t. It came in third with 15 seats in the exit polls behind the Yesh Atid party of former Israeli Channel 2 TV anchor. Yair Lapid is son of the late Tommy Lapid founder of the secularist Shinui party.  Yesh Atid took second place with 19 seats in the new Knesset. Yesh Atid, which freely translates as “There is a future”, appealed to Israeli secularists with its demands for no exemptions from national service. This would   include the extreme orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs.   Moreover Lapid’s party sought housing assistance for veterans and young families and a possible resumption of moribund peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Yacimovich’s Labor party had caught a wave with the Tel Aviv street protests modeled on the Occupy movement in the US.  Fourth in today’s Knesset elections was Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) with 12 seats lead by charismatic Naftali Bennett, former chief of staff to Netanyahu when he was opposition leader. Bennett, a son of American Olim from the Bay Area, is a self made Israeli software multi-millionaire and former IDF Sayeret Matkal officer. He had broken with Netanyahu and left to head the Yesha Council for Judea and Samaria. During the Knesset campaign, Bennett got into a tangle with Netanyahu over comments about serving IDF soldiers who refused orders to evacuate so-called hill top settlements.  Bennett recanted but not before being chastised by Netanyahu. The upshot was that the clash had divided Likud.  Bennett was quoted in a Washington Post article on the Israeli elections:

“We’ve returned to the center of the political map,” said party leader Naftali Bennett, who had extended Jewish Home’s appeal to secular Israelis with a call for unity among all sectors of society. Bennett opposes a Palestinian state and has called for annexing most of the West Bank.

Shas, the party of Orthodox Sephardim in Israel, and its leader Aryeh Deri  was fifth with 11 seats. Deri, previously convicted on corruption charges and having served two years out of a three year term a decade ago.  He had vanquished the chairman of Shas, Eli Yeshai backed by Sephardic Grand Rabbi Ovadiah. Deri is considered as an opportunist seeking membership in whatever coalition would have him in exchange for cash grants to religious organizations under the Shas umbrella.

The election result also saw perhaps the political swan song of former Kadima party leader and Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni.  Livni’s new Hatnua (The Movement) party only got six seats, the same as extreme left socialist party, Meretz, which doubled its previous position.

Another wild card was that the Arab list of parties had increased their position to 12 seats in the new Knesset. Further, Netanyahu has been  criticized for his attack ads against  Bennett’s Jewish Home party allegedly divided parties on  the right. Thus, forcing young Israeli voters to cast ballots for Lapid’s Yesh Atid party  That might  make Bibi’s position  daunting in fashioning a working coalition.

In a sense yesterday’s Knesset elections looked like ‘balagan”, the colloquial expression for chaos in Israel. 32 parties fielded slates, with 12  parties likely to be seated in the new Knesset.  Many had hoped that a Center –Right coalition might address laws changing the country’s law and raising the proportional representation bar hereby reducing the number of parties contending for seats in the Jewish nation’s parliament.

Some observers in the US consider today’s results, when they are finally made official on January 30th, may augur well for the Obama Administration.  Netanyahu’s narrow victory may force him to form a center left government, if he wants to continue being PM.  The Left is suggesting that it could lead a center left coalition involving Lapid’s Yesh Atid overturning Netanyahu.

Maybe not.

On Tuesday afternoon here in the US, I was on a TrentoVisionTV broadcast on-line and simultaneously heard daily on WNN 1470 AM  that originates in Boca Raton, Florida. The host of Trentovision is Tom Trento, founder of The United West (TUW).  The co-hosts were “CJ” and Mark Campbell of TUW.  Commenting on the Israeli election scene was Barry Shaw, a resident of Netanya, author of Israel: Reclaiming the Narrative and whose blog, “The View from Israel,” appears regularly in The Jerusalem Post.  Shaw’s prediction was that Netanyahu would likely form a coalition with Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Yacimovich’s resurgent Labor party and Livni’s new party, Hatnua. He posted  this comment on his Facebook summarizing his TrentoVision broadcast remarks:

Here’s my brave prediction for the next Israeli Government: Likud, Lapid, Labor,Livni giving them a 74 seat majority. If Livni  . . . does not join Bibi, then he will pick Shas which will give him an even stronger majority with 78 seats.

His rationale was that both Lapid and Yacimovich are focused on domestic issues: national service, housing affordability and facilitating entry into the middle class in Israel. Shaw said that Netanyahu had the national security brief to address Iran’s nuclear threat to the Jewish nation. That would give the coalition more than 67 seats in the new Knesset.  We commented on Shaw’s prediction that If Bennett’s Jewish Home party became a junior partner; it would bolster the coalition’s mandate to 79 seats out of a total of 120.   Shaw suggests that Lapid might be given a possible Social Services Ministry post.

That possibility was reflected in Netanyahu’s victory speech.  The Jerusalem Post quoted Netanyahu as saying:

“I see many partners for my goals,” the prime minister said. “We must form the broadest coalition possible. I started working on this tonight,” he promised.

During the speech, Netanyahu emphasized his five priorities. Topping the list was tackling the Iranian nuclear threat, but the prime minister promised to also focus on domestic and economic issues.

Responsible economic policies came second on his list, and seeking a “responsible peace” followed in third.

Netanyahu said his fourth priority was to equalize army and national service for Israeli citizens. Fifth, the prime minister said, was to lower the cost of living and ease the financial burden on middle classes.

David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) commented in a CNN article on the outcome of today’s Knesset elections:

“Once the public thought that Netanyahu was a shoo-in, it assumed his victory and looked for a fresh face that would be focused on issues that he has not prioritized. This explains the meteoric rise of a new party (Yesh Atid) which said it would focus on the middle class and find a way so the ultra-Orthodox participate in burden-sharing by joining either the compulsory army or civilian form of mandatory service.”

[. . .]

“It’s unclear if Netanyahu wanted a pure right-wing option in the first place,” he said.

“But Washington can breathe a sigh of relief that Netanyahu will need to reach accommodation with some parties at the center of the map who essentially would like to see progress on the Palestinian issue as well as on economic issues.”

We are not so sure about Washington’s views as expressed by Makovsky at WINEP.  Netanyahu is a masterful politician who has rightfully kept his focus on the threats from a nuclear Iran and terrorist proxies Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad.  Moreover, Netanyahu is fully aware that the US has its hands full contending with a resurgent al Qaida in neighboring Syria, in the Maghreb, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.  According to Israeli Shaw that is why Yacimovich of Labor and Lapid of Yesh Atid may join as junior members of a new Netanyahu-led coalition government. That would present a unified national position on Israel’s national security in negotiations with the Obama Administration and the EU to overcome the Iran threat and  Islamic jihadis among Israel’s neighbors seeking its destruction.

Shaw offered this view ,in a  later comment on his Facebook page, reflecting  the post election quandary facing Netanyahu should he be given  the nod to form a new Israeli government:

The World:  “Israel has become right wing!”

Israel:  “Wait! Likud and Israel Beiteinu lost height. You call them “right wing” but they lost a lot of votes. Right?”

The World: “Yes, but what about the rise of HaBayit HaYehudi ( Jewish Home)?”

Israel:  “They increased their vote, true, but so did Meretz, and they can’t be called “right wing.”

Silence.

Israel:  And the Arab parties seem to have increased their seats to twelve.”

The World: More silence.

Can Netanyahu fashion a coherent coalition to lead a new Israeli government will be the daunting task in the weeks ahead? Stay tuned for further developments.

Jerry Gordon

Jerry Gordon is Sr. Vice President of World Encounter Institute and Sr. Editor for the New English Review. He is a former Army Intelligence officer who served during the Vietnam era. Mr. Gordon has published widely in such outlets as: FrontPageMagazine, The American Thinker, WorldNetDaily, ChronWatch, New English Review and its blog The Iconoclast, Israpundit and others. He has been a frequent guest discussing Middle East issues on radio in both the U.S. and Canada. He is co-host of the Middle East Roundtable series on Northwest Florida talk radio 1330 - AM WEBY in Pensacola. He is a graduate of both Boston and Columbia Universities. He holds an MBA in Finance from the Columbia University Graduate School of Finance. He ended his investment banking career in Manhattan as Vice President and Director BMO Capital – a US subsidiary of the Bank of Montreal, where he developed a cross border merger and acquisition and private financing practice involving clients in Canada, the US, UK and Israel. He is the author of a collection of interviews with notable personalities in the counter-jihad movements in Canada, the US, titled The West Speaks.

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