Bibi sitting pretty – how will the next Israeli government look?

‘Now I’m gladhanding you in droves’. EPA/Topaz Luk

By all accounts, Benjamin Netanyahu won his unexpected election victory on the back of a dramatic last-minute surge of support, as he outrageously abandoned his commitment to a two-state solution and warned that that the Arabs were flocking to the polls.

Netanyahu will be asked this evening by Israeli president Reuven Rivlin to form a government and will have 28 days, under Israel’s constitution, to build a coalition that will balance all the various competing interests. Talk of a national unity government to include Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni is likely to remain just that as Netanyahu is widely tipped to appoint a religious-right coalition.

Contrary to widespread pre-election analysis, the Zionist Union leaders were not the formidable force many – especially abroad – had made them out to be. Herzog, while distinguished and capable, was never charismatic and Livni – widely seen as the acceptable face of the Israeli peace process – has always played better abroad than at home.

While it looked as though they were competing with Likud, this was only part of the picture. The other parties that make up the spectrum of Israeli politics, with few exceptions, see Likud as their second home and are on hand to help Likud over the 60-seat threshold. This will become clearer over the next month as Netanyahu negotiates his new-look coalition.

But what is clear is that, even if Herzog had beaten Likud into second place Zionist Union would still have needed a substantial margin to prevent a Likud return to power.

But, even so, this is still a Netanyahu victory and the question remains: how did he do it?

Choosing the Bibi sitter

Counter-intuitively, it is the catalogue of failures and security threats that characterised Netanyahu’s performance from 2012 that led so many Israelis to vote for another four-year Netanyahu term.

Hard to watch… But effective?

As Likud’s crass “Bibi as baby-sitter” election video suggested, only he can keep the home and the child safe as Israel faces the consequences of the collapse of the Kerry-brokered talks with the Palestinians, spiralling violence in Jerusalem and on the West Bank, another war with Hamas in Gaza, Islamic State appearing on the Syrian border, growing fears of a “bad deal” with the Iranians and a very visible deterioration in the relationship with the White House.

Despite the deteriorating security during the last Netanyahu administration, in fact because of it, the Israeli electorate has demanded another right-wing coalition led by “Mr Security” himself.

To be sure, Herzog polled well in the better-off districts, the occupants of the Tel Aviv bubble turned out in force and the Israel’s Arab citizens voted in record numbers, but when Netanyahu called to the electorate for help, the poor, the marginalised and the ethnic groups from North Africa and the former Soviet Union who distrust the old socialist elites rallied in support. They know that security does not come easily. Israelis still remember the terrible violence of the Second Intifada that followed the leftist peace policies.

This narrative informs right-wing politics in Israel – and Israel has been lurching to the right for a long time now. Socio-economic issues matter in Israel and Netanyahu is not popular, but when there is trouble on the doorstep and in the house itself, no one wants to an inexperienced baby sitter.

People have spoken - now it’s party time

Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin had urged a national unity government – but as the gap between the Zionist Union and Likud widened this became increasingly unlikely. Under the Israeli system, the president must invite the largest party to form a government provided that it can demonstrate the required 61 members to command a majority.

Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin (left), talks coalitions with Kulanu leader, Moshe Kahlon. EPA/Mark Neiman

At this stage the president takes soundings and the parties make an expression of intent. After two days of meeting the party leaders, Rivlin has established that Netanyahu has the provisional support of the right, religious parties and the centrist Kulanu party. This is enough to produce a 67-strong coalition.

So it’s now a matter of negotiating power within the coalition – who gets what. Here is the opportunity to re-balance the coalition. The troublesome Yair Lapid can be replaced by the less aggressive and more right of centre Kulanu.

The religious parties can be brought in to make up the numbers and Lieberman and Bennett be treated less generously – as befits the leaders of parties whose support has melted away. The result: another right-wing religious coalition but with Netanyahu firmly in charge.

Wanted: an acceptable face of the right

On the other hand, a narrow right-wing coalition may not be so attractive to Netanyahu. The majority is small, empowering internal dissent and Netanyahu has had his fill of that. Also, such a narrow coalition offers little hope to the international community. There is certainly US pressure to widen the team and there are precedents for this. Bridges need to be rebuilt and quickly.

After the 2009 election, Netanyahu brought the Labour party into the coalition, with Labour leader Ehud Barak appointed defence minister. Similarly, Livni was appointed justice minister in 2013, with her more significant role of lead negotiator with the Palestinians.

So what are the options now? The strength of the ill will between Livni and Netanyahu seems to rule out any role for her this time around. Similarly Lapid – and although he has made the right noises on two states he has a limited international profile. This leaves Herzog, who although lacking international recognition is the bearer of the Labour Oslo tradition. To be sure, he is embracing the role of leader of the opposition, but do not rule him out yet. He could be the acceptable face of the 2015 coalition. This would go a long way towards repairing relations with the Obama administration.

What now for the Arab parties?

The successful Knesset vote last year that raised the voting threshold from 2% to 3.5% had been boycotted by the Arab parties. Designed to exclude small parties from the Knesset, Israel’s four Arab parties were facing electoral oblivion – a fate widely predicted by political commentators calling foul on racist gerrymandering.

In fact, the casualty has been Yachad, the Jewish right-wing religious party, which failed to clear the hurdle. For the Arab parties, the change did something that years of arguing had failed to do. It brought the Arab parties together as the Joint Arab List with a shared agenda to improve the living standards of Israel’s Arab 20% population and combat the endemic institutional discrimination.

While Netanyahu urged his supporters to the polls with outrageous warnings of Arabs voting “in droves”, he was right in one respect. The Joint List under its modern, charismatic leader, Ayman Odeh, produced a near-record Arab turn-out. Having secured 13 seats, they are the third-largest party in the Knesset. Were the Zionist Union to join the coalition, the Arab party would be the largest party in opposition.

But the Arab parties are permanently in opposition. While they have voted in the past to support Labour government policy, they have never been in government. Their view of an Israeli state for all its citizens is just too far removed from prevailing views of the Jewish state to allow anything other than an opposition role.

So can the Joint List deliver? Will size matter? If not it is likely to degenerate to an alliance in all but name. Meanwhile, Netanyahu is trying to minimise the fall-out. Both Barack Obama and liberal Jewish constituencies in the US have condemned the anti-Arab rhetoric. Netanyahu has been quick to retreat from his extreme positions and delivered his muted apology to his Arab citizens.

The Israeli system has delivered representation to its Arab minority but it remains to be seen whether increased numbers bring increased power or even enduring unity. Realistically, this will be measured by their success in opposing a right-wing retreat from Israel’s democratic values.

In the meantime Netanyahu has a month to decide who is to be in the coalition and on what terms. Certainly not the Joint List but what about Herzog?

Negotiations have only just begun but the odds are lengthening. With an emerging triumvirate of Netanyahu, Bennett and Lieberman calling the shots and no significant counterweight in the coalition Israel may well be heading for increased international isolation. It is difficult to see what such a line-up can offer the US, let alone the rest of international community in return for support in combating Palestinian unilateral state recognition and referrals to the International Criminal Court. We may be seeing a return to Likud’s core ideology of the Iron Wall.