What’s Herzog’s Problem?

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March 16, 2015 1:21 p.m.

Israelis go to the voting booths tomorrow. The final pre-election polls, published Friday, showed a substantial and possibly widening lead for Labor Party chief Isaac Herzog and his ‘Zionist Camp’ alliance with Tzipi Livni. But Israeli law bars publication of polls after Friday, meaning we have no visibility into the weekend or today, when the decisions of late-deciding voters may prove pivotal. Israeli campaign polls are notoriously imprecise and the three-day blackout only adds to the uncertainty.

As we’ve discussed, even if ZC/Labor bests Netanyahu’s Likud by four seats, that will not be end of the story and it will not necessarily mean Netanyahu is ejected from power. The range of results that now seem probable will likely kick off a days- or weeks-long process in which one or possibly both Herzog and Netanyahu get a chance to assemble a government.

The results of American elections are complex but purely mathematical – setting aside recounts and similar disputes. That’s not the case here. The electoral threshold in Israel means one or more parties might be zapped out of existence if they don’t get to four seats, thus hugely reshuffling the number of seats that go to other parties. Also, President Reuven Rivlin will decide who gets the first chance to form a government – something that could turn out to be the deciding factor. (The closer it is, the more choice he has. And he reportedly would prefer to see a national unity government that would bring together both dominant parties.)

If you’ve been following this story, you’ve likely read that Herzog would have a harder time putting together a government than Netanyahu. So I wanted to take a moment this morning to explain in more detail why that is.

Obviously, the actual election results are hugely important. They could make it much easier or impossible for Herzog to form a government. But assuming they’re broadly in line with the polls, here are the issues …

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The election is going to tell us whether the Israeli public is fed up with Netanyahu. But there’s little doubt that political elites – particularly the heads of lots of the parties – are really, really done with him. He’s just burned too many bridges over his years in power. And, including his stint in the 90s, he’s been in power for a really long time. Because of that, there are probably enough parties and seats available to make up a center or center/center-left coalition. The problem is getting all of them to sit together. And the challenges turn mainly on two basic divisions in Israeli society: secular vs. ultra-orthodox and Arab vs Jew.

First secular vs. ultra-orthodox.

In Israel’s first decades, the parties of the ultra-orthodox were smaller and generally indifferent to politics in its traditional left-right guise. They were mainly focused on preserving the privileged place of orthodoxy in Israel and various concessions from the government – like a special dispensation from serving in the army and welfare benefits for men who don’t work because they spend the day studying Torah (don’t ask …). That began to change after the 1967 War and the change accelerated through the 1990s. They all moved towards the right. But that underlying tendency is still there, which is why at least some of the ultra-orthodox parties that would fit more seamlessly on the right would likely be willing to sit in a center-left government.

But it’s not that easy.

Every way Herzog builds a government relies on the secular, centrist Yesh Atid party of Yair Lapid, which will likely get a dozen or perhaps more seats. A central focus of Yesh Atid is the demand to ‘integrate’ the ultra-orthodox into the mainstream of Israeli society, which means either reducing or eliminating the aforementioned welfare benefits and the special dispensation from military service. These are matters of existential or at least central importance to the ultra-orthodox parties. So Yesh Atid and the ultra-orthodox parties are, in political terms, mortal enemies.

To form a government Herzog almost certainly needs to get Yesh Atid and at least one of the ultra-orthodox parties to sit in the same coalition. Doable? Yes. But not easy. Not easy at all.

Next is the issue of the Arab parties which I already discussed at some length in this post. Many Israeli Arabs vote for mainstream Zionist parties. But the ones referred to as ‘Arab parties’ are by definition either non- or anti-Zionist. In this election, the three main Arab parties (two Arab parties and one ideologically Arab-Jewish party – Hadash – which gets its votes primarily from Arabs) have joined together to run as a joint list and they will likely get at least a dozen seats.

The leaders of the joint list have already made clear that they will not sit in a government as long as the occupation continues. And it is hardly likely in any case. So that’s not the issue, although individual members might conceivably serve. The issue is whether they would support a Herzog coalition from the outside. Yitzhak Rabin struck such a deal when he returned to power in the early 90s.

The left and center-left parties would likely be amenable to such an arrangement. But remember, Herzog needs center and likely center-right parties to join his coalition. On the extremes, we’re talking about Arab nationalist and Islamist parties on the one hand and the party of Avigdor Lieberman, who openly calls Arab-Israelis who are not avowedly Zionist Fifth columnists, on the other.

This is a difficult mix.

More realistically, we are talking about whether Herzog could manage to bring centrist and center-right parties (and/or ultra-orthodox parties) into a coalition that tacitly relied on the votes of the Arab parties to sustain it in power, even while they did not serve in the government itself. This may simply be impossible. It may also be unnecessary. But any Herzog government would rest on a thin majority. And the existence of another dozen votes that would at least abstain, and perhaps vote for it in a no confidence vote, would significantly add to its robustness.

As we noted at the top, the vote count on Tuesday night might make all this moot. But Netanyahu doesn’t have the same problems. Assuming the total vote count doesn’t go dramatically against him, he can put together the parties of the right with the religious parties and add on some centrist votes to make it all work. Whether that strategy adds up to enough seats is what we’ll find out on Tuesday. But such a coalition lacks the internal contradictions and sharp edges that will be built into any Herzog government. That’s why getting enough votes to assure that he gets the first chance to form a government is only Herzog’s first hurdle – and perhaps not the hardest to overcome.

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