The Multiplying Effect in Israeli Politics

The party system in Israel is fragmenting more and more, as new parties continue to emerge. In theory, this is good for the voter, since it offers more choice. But in reality, this will have the effect of strengthening Benjamin Netanyahu’s chances of forming a coalition government with Likud Beiteinu at its core.

First, the operation in Gaza appears to have strengthened the far right parties. A Knesset Channel poll, for instance, immediately after the ceasefire gave Likud Beiteinu only 33 seats, from the 42 it currently has. More importantly, it gave the merged party of Jewish Home and National Union 13 mandates, up from the five it has now. And it had the new far right party of Michael Ben Ari and Aryeh Eldad (Strong Israel) reaching four seats.

I’m not sure these smaller rightist parties will maintain this momentum. In the immediate aftermath of the ceasefire, rockets were still falling on Israel. And while many Israelis are dissatisfied with what seems to them to be an inconclusive ending, this sentiment will diminish as time moves away from the conflict and relative quiet returns to the south. But the parties themselves will likely still be around come January.

Second, perhaps unsurprisingly, Tzipi Livni is now expected to announce next week the formation of a brand new party, National Responsibility Party. First reactions are good: A Channel 2 poll gives her nine seats, drawing some support from Labor and, especially, from Yesh Atid—which is decimated and left with four mandates. In this poll, too, the far right parties don’t do as well: Jewish Home/National Union only gets nine seats, and Strong Israel doesn’t get any.

It’s still too soon to know which of these estimates holds true in January. But in many ways it doesn’t matter: both of these processes will strengthen Netanyahu. The far right, regardless of how many parties compose it, won’t join a coalition with Labor. And given that Livni is identified with having focused on the peace process at the expense of, well, everything else, it would be difficult for them to work with her, as well.

At the same time, Livni’s party will split the center and center-left vote. Yair Lapid’s efforts to appeal to right-leaning voters will have been undermined, and there will be another party jostling for influence and another ego to be appeased—making it difficult for the center and center-left to come together (or more importantly, to stay together) to balance against Likud.

Alternately, Livni will, despite her protestations against his policies, be more likely to join a coalition with Bibi, putting off his need for the far right parties. Livni and those Kadima members who will be joining her party are more likely to garner rightwing voters, which makes her more of a natural fit in a Likud Beiteinu coalition than Labor or Yesh Atid.

In addition, all of this will undermine Shas’s ability to project a new image and pursue a new direction under Aryeh Deri. It will now have to compete with the far right and Livni for right-leaning voters. In the bargaining that comes after the election, it will have to fight them for a share of the coalition pie. Acting dovish, either on foreign policy (the West Bank) or domestic policy (African migrants and asylum-seekers) won’t work under these conditions.

In short, it looks right now as though Bibi and Likud Beiteinu come out on top in any scenario. It was always the most likely to form the coalition, but all of the changes that continue to occur in Israeli politics seem to strengthen its position of having more choice, more parties to play off each other, and to get the best coalition deal possible.

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