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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: Netanyahu's three post-elections options -- January 14, 2013

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Alpher discusses Netanyahu's options on January 23 for forming a governing coalition, what coalition options might emerge from these, how former PM Olmert's accusations of Netanyahu wasting NIS 11 billion over the past four years on "military delusions" plays in the elections, and more on the the saga of Mahmoud Abbas asking to absorb Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria: everyone takes yet another opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Q. Assuming the pre-election polls are fairly accurate, what will Netanyahu's options be on January 23 for forming a governing coalition?

A. The assumption embodied in this question is that Binyamin Netanyahu, the outgoing prime minister, will also be the incoming prime minister. Based on all available polling data, that is a safe guess. A number of additional anticipated characteristics of the next Knesset that will affect formation of Netanyahu's coalition can also be considered fairly certain.

First, Meretz on the Zionist left, Otzma LeYisrael on the neo-Kahanist right, and the three Arab-dominated parties will not be in the next coalition. By default, all the other parties are potential candidates.

Second, the next Knesset will be even more fractured and fragmented than its predecessor, with no party exceeding 34 mandates and even that list, Likud Beitenu, possibly reverting very quickly to its two separate component parties, Likud and Yisrael Beitenu, with around 24 and 10 mandates respectively. Hence Netanyahu's next government will feature a multiplicity of parties and be potentially unstable. Accordingly, the prime minister will put a premium on survival through manipulation and avoiding controversial initiatives--two skills he is extremely adept at.

Third, the next Likud slate of MKs in the Knesset will be even more right-wing, pro-settler and right-religious than the outgoing Likud. This means that, even if by some miracle Netanyahu becomes so inclined, he will be incapable of initiating a serious peace process with the Palestinians without destabilizing his own party, not to mention his coalition. In 2005, PM Ariel Sharon's solution to a similar quandary was to form a new party, Kadima, in order to carry out unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. But Netanyahu does not have either Sharon's courage or his pragmatic flexibility regarding the need to radically alter ideologically-based policies to conform with Israel's true existential needs and the expectations of the Israeli public and the United States.

Fourth, the three main centrist parties, Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid, Tzipi Livni's HaTnua, and Labor, have mounted a truly confusing slate of conditions and counter-conditions for joining a Likud-led coalition, whether separately or together. At last count, Yesh Atid would not join a coalition that contains Shas; Labor would not join any coalition under Netanyahu; and HaTnua was hedging its bets. This analysis assumes that the day after elections all these conditions become irrelevant and all three, as well as Kadima (currently predicted to pass the two-mandate threshold) will be potential candidates to join some sort of coalition if it meets their political needs.

And finally, the next Knesset will urgently confront an immediate large budget deficit run up by Netanyahu's outgoing government, along with escalating Palestinian protests in the West Bank symbolized by recent days' clash at E1 over a Palestinian "outpost", and of course the Iran issue. It may also face heavy US pressure over the Palestinian issue. Netanyahu knows that his next coalition has to be capable of dealing with at least a portion of these challenges.

Q. Based on these assumptions, then, what coalition options do you envisage?

A. Our calculations here will assume that even if Likud and Yisrael Beitenu separate immediately after elections, the latter will be a member of any coalition Netanyahu forms. The numbers in parenthesis are an approximation of what the polls, aggregated, predict for each party.

Roughly, these are the possibilities Netanyahu will confront. I'm inclined to say that this list ranks them beginning with the most likely and ending with the least probable. But don't hold me to that. Better to see the following as a set of models for gauging the direction Netanyahu chooses to move after January 22.

  • 1. A right-religious coalition similar to the outgoing one, minus Ehud Barak's Atzmaut breakaway from Labor: Likud Beitenu (34), Shas (10), HaBait HaYehudi (14), Yahadut HaTorah (6). That makes 64 mandates (out of 120 in the Knesset). Netanyahu would have the option of inviting in one of the centrist parties--even Kadima (2)--in an attempt to rebuff criticism that the government is extreme. This coalition would essentially be dedicated to maintaining the status quo regarding peace and religion-and-state issues. To include HaBait HaYehudi, it would pay lip-service to the cause of compulsory national service for the ultra-orthodox.
  • 2. A right-center coalition without the ultra-orthodox (Shas and Yahadut HaTorah): Likud Beitenu (34), HaBait HaYehudi (14), Yesh Atid (11). This manageable foundation would produce 59 mandates and would put Netanyahu in a good bargaining position to add HaTnua (8), Kadima (2), and/or Labor (17). This coalition would be dedicated primarily to radically changing the status of the ultra-orthodox, including mandatory military service, core secular education and ending subsidies for yeshiva students. That platform could be very popular with Israel's secular and national religious majority and could distract attention from the absence of a peace process.
  • 3. A Likud-led peace coalition: Likud Beitenu (34), Yesh Atid (11), HaTnua (8), Labor (17) and Kadima (2). This coalition could reach a comfortable 72 MKs. Its formation would presumably reflect Netanyahu's anticipation of heavy international pressures to move into a serious peace process with the Palestinians. This would also be the coalition least likely to approve an Israeli preventive attack on Iran. And it too could deal with the status of the ultra-orthodox. But significant sectors of both Likud and Yisrael Beitenu would balk at almost any peace concessions. Hence this would be the least stable of Netanyahu's prospective coalitions. If indeed it emerged due to external pressures, the outcome could easily be early new elections.

Q. Former PM Ehud Olmert has accused Netanyahu of wasting NIS 11 billion over the past four years on "military delusions". How does this sort of claim play in the elections?

A. Badly. Olmert did not go into details, presumably for fear of revealing security secrets. To the extent the public can guess what he's talking about, the various military exercises held and weapons system development schemes promoted under Netanyahu with Iran in mind--some with the collaboration of the Pentagon and American armed forces--are seen positively by the public. Hence Olmert's criticism of Netanyahu plays directly to the latter's strong point, as embodied in the Likud's election slogan: "A strong prime minister--a strong Israel".

Finally, Olmert just doesn't seem to be capable of comprehending that many sectors of the public view him as a failed and corrupt prime minister: failed in Lebanon in 2006, and corrupt in fostering a system of payoffs embodied in the envelopes of cash he is reported to have received from so many diverse persons with special interests. In other words, Olmert's credibility is low. Pity: his counterproductive attack on Netanyahu unfortunately discredits the extensive legitimate and credible criticism that is aimed at the prime minister regarding his performance over the past four years.

Q. Anything new on the saga of Mahmoud Abbas asking to absorb Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria?

A. It's becoming a farce, and a tragic farce at that. Last week, we related how Hamas in the Gaza Strip had refused to take in any Palestinians fleeing Syria even though they could enter Gaza via Egypt, thereby avoiding the need for Israel's permission. The Hamas leadership refused outright lest this humanitarian gesture somehow compromise the "sacred" right of return of 1948 refugees to Israel proper. Then last Wednesday, while Abbas was visiting Egypt to talk to Hamas about reconciliation, the Palestinian news website Sama reported that he told Egyptian journalists in Cairo that, at his behest, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had asked the Netanyahu government to acquiesce to the entry of the refugees into the West Bank. Israel, Ban allegedly told Abbas, had "agreed to the return of those refugees to Gaza and the West Bank, but on condition that each refugee . . . sign a statement" permanently foregoing the right of return to Israel.

If the report on the Israeli response is true--and it rings true (the Israel PM's Office and Foreign Ministry refused comment)--Netanyahu missed a golden opportunity to encourage Abbas to absorb refugees into the newly-declared Palestinian state. The very act of a refugee accepting repatriation into Palestine speaks volumes about foregoing the right of return, even if the refugees, and Abbas, will never say so. It positions the UN-recognized Palestinian state as the natural destination of "return"--something Israel should welcome.

But Abbas' reported response to all this was equally appalling: "So we rejected [the Israeli demand] and said it's better they die in Syria than give up their right of return".

No wonder this conflict is so difficult to resolve . . .