The Israeli election result is disappointing and worrying, because of the continuing divisions in Israeli society it exposes, the governmental instability it portends, and the vulnerability to international pressures it suggests.
Israel is going to have a badly bifurcated parliament, and the coalition government likely to emerge will be hobbled by internal contradictions. In fact, this time the coalition politics may be mission impossible. It's hard to see a stable, long-term government emerging from this election.
While the election was not a referendum on Israel’s diplomatic future, the weakening of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes him easier prey for U.S. President Barack Obama and the Palestinians. They can be sure to take advantage of his political infirmities to press for concessions. Moreover, I don't see the inelegant coalition government he will form as being cohesive enough to go after Iran.
In fact, Netanyahu's tenure is not at all secure for the long term. His reign as "King Bibi" — the unrivalled master of Israeli politics and the only conceivable leader for the post of prime minister — has been badly shaken. His credit in the public is low.
It is important to consider the reasons behind Likud-Yisrael Beytenu's slump.
Certainly, the fact that Netanyahu had no real rival for the prime minister's position in this election left Netanyahu and Likud supporters much too complacent. Late in the campaign, Netanyahu tried to run against Shimon Peres and Barack Obama, but that is not the same as having a tangible adversary. Also, voters felt that they could vote for the niche party of their choice, knowing that Netanyahu would be the prime minister anyway.
Secondly, the Likud ran a terrible campaign. It aligned itself with Israel Beytenu even though Netanyahu probably knew that Avigdor Lieberman was going to be indicted and forced to resign as foreign minister. Likud wildly and unwisely attacked Naftali Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi party. The Likud's own slate of candidates for Knesset moved to the right, and this lineup appeared less attractive to the public. The campaign also relied too heavily on ads and slogans, instead of working the field and connecting with live voters.
Most salient of all, the social justice protests of 18 months ago proved to be a real and live presence in this election, and Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party reaped the benefits of this. Apparently, not a few traditional Likud voters view the Netanyahu government as insufficiently attuned to their economic pain, and as beholden to business-sector tycoons and ultra-Orthodox politicos. Netanyahu's new government will have to reorder government spending priorities away from long-entitled sectors and confront sensitive issues of religion and state — a herculean, if not politically impossible, task.
Instead of showing that it felt the public's economic pain, Likud's campaign focused on Netanyahu's leadership in "standing strong" against Iran, against the Palestinians, against Obama, and even against African migrant workers. This is fine, and most Israelis give Netanyahu credit for all that. But they took Netanyahu's leadership on these matters for granted (given that he had no real rival), and then faulted him for not being closely enough attuned to their economic needs.
The result is that Netanyahu's Likud-Beytenu base in the 120-seat Knesset has been reduced from 42 to about 31 seats. This means that Likud will have to compromise on many issues, and give up many of the seats around the cabinet table to draw in coalition partners.
Theoretically, Netanyahu could squeak into government again with a very narrow, 61-seat right-wing and religious coalition composed of Likud, Habayit Hayehudi, Shas and United Torah Judaism. But such a government would have little Israeli or international legitimacy and be hard-pressed to handle the big economic and diplomatic challenges ahead. Recognizing this, Netanyahu has said he wants the "broadest coalition possible."
The more obvious place to start from in formation of a coalition government is an alliance between Likud and Yesh Atid, since the two parties together would hold a commanding 50 seats in parliament. And indeed, Netanyahu's first phone call last night was to Yair Lapid. But here is where it gets complicated.
Lapid has sworn not to enter a government dominated by Netanyahu's traditional coalition partners, the ultra-Orthodox parties. He has said, and repeated last night, that he will only enter a Netanyahu government that embarks on significant economic reforms as well as changes in matters of religion and state that sharply impinge on the ultra-Orthodox and on Netanyahu's core economic principles. And he has said that he will only enter a Netanyahu government if parties of the political Left are drafted into the coalition as well. Apparently, Lapid is already coordinating his moves with Labor's Shelly Yachimovich and Hatnuah’s Tzipi Livni.
You can be certain that Lapid will join Netanyahu's government — but Lapid may be in the driver's seat, not Netanyahu, and Netanyahu will be handcuffed on all sides by the other parties that Lapid will insist on adding.
Netanyahu has always sought to include center-left parties in his governments, and has been honestly able to claim that he represented a broad consensus. But in the past his base was much stronger. Now Netanyahu will be working from a position of relative political weakness, while his coalition "partners" will be looking for every chance to aggrandize themselves at his expense, and an early opportunity to force repeat elections where Likud could be completely knocked off its first-place pedestal.
Having said all that, I think that there is another, better alternative: a Likud-Lapid-Bennett government (that may also bring Kadima aboard). Such a government could implement the many desperately needed reforms, including changing the system of government, redefining the military draft law on the ultra-Orthodox, and passing a budget that is both responsible and compassionate. Netanyahu should work rapidly toward this.