A week and a half after he secured Tzipi Livni, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu has still not been able to assemble the remaining pieces into a new majority coalition. A prime minister-designate gets 28 days to form a government, after which the president has the option to give him a 14-day extension. President Shimon Peres has just done so.
A government needs 61 seats for a majority (although if it expects to last the full term it wants a few more as a margin for error). With Livni’s Hatnuah, Kadima and the ultra-orthodox parties, plus his own Likud – Beiteinu joint list, Netanyahu has 57.
The obvious extra seats would come from the hard right Jewish Home, with 12. But Jewish Home is sticking, so far, with its agreement with Yesh Atid, the new centrist party led by Yair Lapid. Jewish Home’s leader, Naftali Bennett, explicitly says that he and Lapid will join the government either together or not at all – and the basis of their agreement is the extension of conscription to the ultra-orthodox.
In terms of numbers, if he can get Yesh Atid (which is the second largest party, with 19 seats) Netanyahu doesn’t need the ultra-orthodox. But having both Livni and Lapid in the cabinet might tilt the balance rather more towards the centre than the prime minister (not to mention his hardline backbench) is comfortable with.
Then again, the fact that Lapid has locked himself into such a strong alliance with Bennett’s party suggests that his centrist credentials are pretty thin.
The strength of Netanyahu’s position is that his opponents can’t possibly get the numbers without him. Even if Lapid and Bennett went over to the centre-left, and even if Livni (despite her earlier agreement with Netanyahu) came with them, they still wouldn’t have a majority. At best they’d command exactly 60 seats (on the heroic assumption that Meretz and Jewish Home could find some sort of common ground); the only way of getting any further would be by an alliance with the non-Zionist parties, which won’t happen.
But that strength is also a weakness, because the centre-left can reasonably assume they have more to gain than to lose from fresh elections. If Netanyahu fails, it doesn’t matter if no-one else succeeds – from his enemies’ point of view, a new election is almost as good.
That gives Netanyahu some scope for bluffing: to threaten to throw in the towel in order to detach Jewish Home. But if they call the bluff (as for the moment they seem determined to do), would Netanyahu really go through with it rather than just take in both Lapid and Bennett and ditch the ultra-orthodox?
And incidentally, just what is it with the BBC and election numbers? The story I cited above, dated 2 March, informs us that “The talks began after Israel’s right-wing and centre-left blocs each secured 60 seats in the 120-member parliament.” No, that was before the postal votes – the right ended up with 61 seats. We’ve known that for more than five weeks. (They still haven’t got Italy right, either.)