tip off

Netanyahu back, with some choices to make

Israel’s election results are almost final: the precise number doesn’t make much difference to Benjamin Netanyahu’s options, but his drop in support might be psychologically important.

*UPDATE 24 JAN.*

At least some of the postal votes have now been tabulated; I don’t know if the figures are final yet, but they must at least be close. On that basis, Jewish Home has indeed picked up an extra seat at the expense of the United Arab List, taking it to 12 and the right’s total to 61.

No points to the BBC, which last night claimed that “99.8%” of the votes had been counted, leading many understandably to assume that the 60-60 result wouldn’t change. That total referred only to the ordinary votes, leaving out the postals altogether.

—–

The latest official figures in the Israeli election (see previous post on how to decipher them from the Hebrew) give the following seat totals:

Likud-Beiteinu    31
Jewish Home    11
Shas    11
United Torah Judaism    7

Total Right: 60

Yesh Atid    19
Labor    15
Hatnuah    6
Meretz    6
Kadima    2

Total Centre and Centre-Left: 48

United Arab List    5
Hadash    4
Balad    3

Total Non-Zionist: 12

There have been no new figures for a while, so that’s probably about final except for postal votes. The postals come mostly from the military, so they tend to favor the right; it’s likely that Jewish Home will pick up an additional seat, at the expense of either Yesh Atid or the United Arab List. That would be a total for the right of 61, one less than I tipped in Crikey earlier today (the main reason for the difference is that Kadima has just squeaked above the 2% threshold).

But as I explained there, the precise number, give or take a couple, doesn’t really matter. Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is back in any case (because the centrists would never co-operate with the Arab parties to exclude him, even if they could), and his various options for putting together a stable majority boil down to two:

One option is to go with basically a right-wing coalition, taking in one centrist party (either Yesh Atid or Hatnuah) to shore up his majority.

The other option is to reject the forces to his right and build a centrist coalition with Yesh Atid, Hatnuah and Labor.

Either option would command a solid Knesset majority. The choice between them is a choice of what sort of government Netanyahu wants to lead.

Will he set himself firmly against peace with the Palestinians, expanding the settlements and making a two-state solution impossible? Or will he, like [Ariel] Sharon before him, try to reinvent himself as a peacemaker and give credibility to the view often heard in the West that he is really a closet moderate?

Netanyahu said today that he wants to form “as broad a government as possible”, and reportedly told Yair Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid, “We have the opportunity to do great things together.” But immediate post-election rhetoric rarely gives much guide to how leaders are really thinking. If Netanyahu can pick off Lapid – who has certainly sounded comfortable with the idea – then I doubt he will feel any need to venture further into the centre.

There’s no question that the election is a setback for the prime minister, but his immediate position remains strong. Despite a lot of talk today around the internet, I think a fresh election within a year or so is most unlikely. The biggest effect from today is probably psychological: whereas previously a centre-left government just seemed completely out of reach, it is now seen to be not that far off. A future without Netanyahu has become thinkable, and in the medium term that might even inject some optimism into the peace process.

In the short term, however, the most difficult issue facing Netanyahu is not the Palestinians or even Iran but the exemption from conscription enjoyed by the ultra-orthodox – the issue that led to the collapse of the last government. The secular Yesh Atid will demand concessions on that as the price of co-operation. And since that’s clearly driving a lot of its support, it’s very much in Netanyahu’s interest to do a deal, to draw Lapid’s sting.

The ultra-orthodox parties, as usual, will hold out for as much as they can get, but I expect some sort of compromise will be worked out. And the fundamental issues that Israel needs to deal with will be swept under the carpet yet again.

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