When Israeli President Shimon Peres designated Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu on Friday to form Israel’s next government, one key question about Israel’s next government was answered but many others were left unresolved.
Unlike Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, who had the opportunity to become prime minister last fall but then failed to from a coalition, Likud’s Netanyahu undoubtedly will succeed in assembling a coalition government and assuming the post of prime minister.
The question is what his governing partners will look like.
So far, Netanyahu has said he wants the broadest possible coalition, and he publicy has called on Labor (13 seats) and Kadima (28 seats) to join him in a national unity government. But Labor’s Ehud Barak has indicated it wants to rebuilt itself in the opposition, and Livni appears to be leaning against joining a Netanyahu-led government.
If all else fails, Bibi can bank on having right-wing partners to form the necessary 61-seat majority for his coalition in the 120-seat Knesset: Yisrael Beiteinu (15 seats), Shas (11) and smaller parties including National Union (4), the Jewish Home (3) and United Torah Judaism (5) would line up behind Likud (27 seats) — so long as Netanyahu promises the religious parties goodies like welfare and education funding.
But such a government (65 seats) would hamstring Bibi in peacemaking efforts. Yisrael Beiteinu’s leader, Avigdor Lieberman, said a year ago when he pulled out of the coalition with Kadima that his goal was to stop the Annapolis peace process with the Palestinians. His stance has not changed, leaving Bibi with little wiggle room to advance that process. Shas would bolt the coalition if Netanyahu discussed Jerusalem with the Palestinians. And any number of those parties might block Israeli-Syrian peacemaking, which Netanyahu pursued clandestinely last time he was prime minister, from 1996 to 1999.
While Bibi is no dove, he’s not as hawkish as these potential coalition partners, which is partly why he’d prefer to have a broader coalition — one that includes his major rival, Livni, and Kadima’s 28 seats.
The question for Livni is, now that Bibi has bested her in the contest to form the next government, should she join ’em or fight ’em?
The argument can go both ways. On the one hand, Livni wants no part of a government that is not committed to peacemaking with the Palestinians, which has been her primary focus for the last year and a half. She fears that any coalition with the likes of Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu would make pursuing peace impossible, and Kadima’s presence in the government would serve as little more than a fig leaf for hawkish policy. Moreover, staying in the opposition would give Livni a chance to build Kadima from the outside as a party devoted to peace, and an alternative to a government that could be on a collision course with Washington — not to mention the Arab world. Such a government, she must figure, would be unlikely to last a full term.
However, if Livni refuses to partner with Bibi in a coalition government, she pretty much guarantees Israel’s next government will be unabashadly right wing. Instead, she could join Likud and possibly mitigate the government’s hawkishness and give Netanyahu more room to maneuver when it comes to Arab-Israel peacemaking. That would be the case especially if Labor joined the government, too. Furthermore, given the unique threats Israel faces — especially from Iran — the country could use a national unity government.
For Livni, the choice may be between party and country.
The other major unanswered question now is, coalition aside, where does Bibi intend to lead Israel? With the old distinctions between right and left no longer in force, the question on the Palestinian front is how fast Israel will push for a two-state solution. Livni believes the window of opportunity is closing, whereas Netanyahu believes the Palestinians are not ready yet for their own state. During the campaign, Netanyahu was purposely vague about his vision for a two-state solution (if, indeed, he has one).
With Israel facing the prospect of a nuclear Iran, serious threats on its southern border (Hamas in Gaza) and northern border (Hezbollah in Lebanon), and the prospect of a crippling economic crisis, this is no doubt a pivotal moment in Israeli history.
The question is where Israel goes from here.