Yesterday’s election results show Israel feeling its way back towards a two-party system — but the spectrum has shifted to the right, and the two parties will not be Kadima and Labour, as I tipped at the time of the previous election, but Kadima and Likud.
Kadima, unexpectedly, has won bragging rights by winning the most seats, 28 to Likud’s 27. (The results are not quite final, and postal votes could still shift a seat here or there.) But with 61 needed for a majority, the two are effectively deadlocked, with Likud, whose vote more than doubled from 2006, in the stronger position.
Broadly speaking, there are three possible outcomes. Most probably, Likud will succeed in assembling a right-wing coalition; with its natural allies, Yisrael Beiteinu and the four religious parties, it has 65 seats, up from 50 in the old Knesset. Benyamin Netanyahu would become prime minister on a platform of resisting compromise with the Palestinians.
Much less likely, Kadima’s Tzipi Livni might succeed in putting together a coalition excluding Likud. The combined centre-left strength is 55 seats, although that includes the three Arab parties, which have traditionally been left out of coalition-making. Livni would need to attract either Shas, the largest religious party (11 seats), or Yisrael Beiteinu (15).
Neither is impossible; Shas is out for money and privileges for its ultra-Orthodox constituents, but has no particular attachment to Likud’s policy positions, while Yisrael Beiteinu, although virulently anti-Arab, has sat in government with Kadima before and clearly fancies itself as kingmaker. Any such government, however, would be fragile at best.
An intermediate possibility is that the three mainstream parties — Kadima, Likud and Labour, with 68 seats between them — could join in a grand coalition to shut out the extremists. Given the need for Israelis to somehow forge a consensus on the peace process, that may be the most attractive option. The stumbling block, however, would be the question of who is to lead it.
Livni would seem to have better claims, as the most centrist and leader of the largest party, but the greater strength of Netanyahu’s allies puts him in a much better bargaining position. Placed in a somewhat similar position in the 1980s, Labour and Likud agreed to alternate the prime ministership, so even that option should not be ruled out.
As expected, this post-election uncertainty is being used as an argument by those opposed to proportional representation: David Blair in the Telegraph claims that “Israel’s electoral system guarantees that parties who are bitterly opposed to any territorial concessions to the Palestinians will be part of a government.”
But this is a classic case of shooting the messenger. The extremists are powerful only when (a) significant numbers of people vote for them, and (b) the moderate parties refuse to agree on keeping them out. Blame them, don’t blame democracy.