Let's hope that despite the vitriolic statements being made about the divide between Likud-Beytenu on one side and Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi on the other, a secret back channel exists that these parties are using for talks on establishing the next government. Any delay in establishing the new government would harm Israel economically and diplomatically. There is nothing worse than imagining U.S. President Barack Obama being forced to postpone his trip to Israel, scheduled for March 20, due to the lack of a stable government in Jerusalem.
The election results allow for some maneuvering, but there is no real flexibility.
Labor must remain in the opposition. I don't think even the Labor MKs who want ministerial positions would break their party apart for this. After the 2009 election, the entire Labor party entered the coalition. It left after Ehud Barak and four other Labor MKs quit Labor in 2011 to form the now-defunct Independence party, which remained in the coalition. In the long term, Israeli democracy needs a governing alternative, and the proper educational workshop for Shelly Yachimovich and her colleagues would be four years on the opposition benches.
Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett are sticking to their ad hoc cooperation agreement more diligently than their rivals believed they would. This agreement must not be taken lightly, even if it doesn't last over time. Both Lapid and Bennett claim that they are not ruling out joining the next government. But what are they doing to promote that option? They must respect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's honor. Good partnerships don't start with dictates. Every dictate harms the other partner in some way, especially if that partner is meant to be prime minister. If Lapid and Bennett do consult with each other, they would be wise to figure out something substantive they could go to Netanyahu with.
On the other hand, Netanyahu must take into account that election results left Likud with only 20 Knesset seats (31 when Yisrael Beytenu is added). Netanyahu won't benefit from the parliamentary security belt that ruling parties had when they held 40 or even 50 seats. Netanyahu must accept that the next government will be formed and managed under conditions more uncertain and insecure than any past government had to deal with. This is the simple arithmetical reality.
At heart, Lapid and Bennett are close to Netanyahu on two main issues — equitable enlistment, where there is room for flexibility, as all three don't want to impose this on the ultra-Orthodox by brandishing the sword of the law; and the economy, where they share an outlook that understands the meaning of a large deficit and the need to cut around 14 billion shekels ($3.8 billion) from the state budget. Lapid and Bennett are closer to Netanyahu than they are to Labor or Shas.
There is also the issue of the peace process. Netanyahu's outlook on this issue is somewhere between Bennett's and Lapid's. Since all three assume that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas won't accept what Israel is prepared to offer, their joint management of this issue will be more calm and relaxed than people currently think.
Despite Netanyahu's apparent preference for Shas and United Torah Judaism as coalition partners, the right step for him to take, given the magnitude of the tasks facing him, would be to choose Lapid and Bennett. This would be a revolutionary, but also a correct, move.