|Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu|
However, there is a fair bit of time until the election, about 40 days. Much can change as it often does in the swirling Mideastern winds of an Israeli election campaign.
Over the past week or two, there have been numerous stories in the press about the excesses of the Netanyahu family in the Prime Ministerial home. One story involved allegations that Prime Minister Netanyahu's wife was pocketing a huge amount of money from refunded deposits on the return of water bottles. Another story focused on excessive wine consumption in the Netanyahu quarters and a third story questioned a patio furniture purchase that the Netanyahus had recently made. Listening to the Israeli news broadcasts, one might have thought that the reaction to this accumulation of allegations would be overwhelmingly negative. But surprisingly, in polls that have come after this media barrage, Netanyahu has emerged, according to the polls with an even higher number of predicted seats than he had before the scandals broke. The latest polls have put him at anywhere between 24 and 27 seats in the 120 seat Israeli Knesset, which would likely give him enough to have a plurality and have first dibs at forming a government.
Where there was some apparent momentum in the media for Isaac Herzog, leader of the Labour Party and Tsipi Livni (who together have joined forces to campaign as the "Zionist Camp"), the poll numbers do not seem to be reflecting the media enthusiasm. The latest polls put the Zionist Camp at a similar range - 23 to 26 but the additional questions that pollsters have been asking suggest that the confidence in Herzog as a potential Prime Minister is lacking in the Israel public and that the Zionist Camp numbers may not wind up as high as the numbers that are currently being reported.
At election time, Israel usually winds up with a few new parties. In this case there is a new centrist party, led by Moshe Kahlon. The party is a centrist party, focusing on economic issues. Does this sound familiar? A look at the pools suggests that they are currently at a predicted eight seats, most of which were probably taken from Yesh Atid, Yair Lapid's party.
Of course many of these numbers could change quite a bit between now and election time.
So far, however, there seem to be few scenarios under which Herzog could become the Prime Minister. Assuming he obtained 26-28 seats, how could he get to 61? He could add in 13 seats from Yesh Atid (on a good day), 6 from Meretz and 9 from Kahlon. So that would get him to 56. And those are some very flattering and highly optimistic assumptions all around. He would then need to find 5 or 6 more seats. One option would be Lieberman's "Yisrael Beitenu" which would bring this coalition somewhat to the right. Hard to imagine making a successful shiduch out of that arrangement. Another option would be to add in the religious parties - Shas, United Torah Judaism and "Yachad" - a new Shas splinter group. That could amount to 10 or even 15 seats but the cost would be the reversal of most of the gains that Israel achieved in the two years of governing without these parties in the Knesset. It would be very unpalatable for Lapid - unless the Haredi parties greatly toned down their historic demands. Of course another option is that the "Zionist Camp" could be supported by the three Arab parties - that have now united under one banner. But how ironic would it be for the "Zionist Camp" to form a government that is held together by 12 Arab Israeli legislators?
On the other hand, if Prime Minister Netanyahu emerges with 25 to 27 seats, his path to a majority seems somewhat less difficult (at least ideologically). He could add in Yisrael Biteinu with 6, the "Jewish Home" under Bennett with 12. That would put him at 45. He would now have the possible options of a mixture of Shas/Yachad/UTJ (10-15), Kahlon (8/9), Yesh Atid (9-12), which could get him close to 70. Even if Lapid chose not to join this unholy coalition, there would likely still be enough for Netanyahu to exceed 62 and form a government. However, it would be a significantly more right wing government than the one that is currently in place.
A third option would be some sort of Labour-Likud coalition - which Israel has seen in the past. Hard to imagine as things sit right now. However, Prime Minister Netanyahu has certainly had his differences with most of his current coalition partners - ranging from Bennett to Lapid. Perhaps a government with fewer partners would be more manageable? Not that this would be a "Zionist Camp" fantasy - but it might be preferable, even for Herzog, to the alternative of a few years of a hard right Israeli government or a government that is dependent on the demands of the ultra religious parties.
It is somewhat unclear what Netanyahu's inclinations really would be with these different alternatives. The easier route for him might be a government with 13-17 ultra-religious seats bolstering his core group. But the cost would be quite high for Israeli secular society. I'm really not sure that it is a cost that even Netanyahu is willing to pay, after having been able to see what can be accomplished in a government without the ultra religious parties. He may have already made some type of deal with Shas (and certainly there have been rumours to that effect). But until the election results are in and the deal is consummated, nothing is certain.
In my view, a right wing coalition with the various ultra-religious parties and Bennett's "Bayit Yehudi" will create many challenges for Israel, both domestically and internationally. It would be a coalition that would continue to increase the gap between the rich and the poor in Israel and one that would reverse many of the changes that had been made to secular-religious issues in Israel. In particular, it is a coalition that would spend much more money funding Yeshivas and new settlements and would halt the very modest trend towards increased religious pluralism in Israel. And it is a coalition that could lead to the further isolation of Israel in many international circles by taking an even harder line in matters involving the Palestinians. I find it hard to imagine that a majority of Israelis would view this as the best type of government but I guess that is for Israelis to decide at the polls.
It should be a very interesting period in Israel as we watch the changing poll results come in and wait to see if any of the parties are able to create some momentum in an unforeseen direction over the course of this campaign. I'm not betting on it.