The Land of Milk and Honey and Political Instability
Exit poll results are out in Israel's latest election and, if they prove accurate - which is not at all certain, Kadima, headed by Tzipi Livni, will have won a plurality, with roughly two more seats than the Likud. However, the 'centre-left bloc' that Kadima is said to be part of will likely be in the minority with about 57 seats, with the 'right-wing bloc', of which Bibi Netanyahu's Likud is the major player (along with Avigdor Lieberman and his quasi-fascist Yisrael Beiteinu) on about 63 (give or take a seat). This leads to the question: what chances are there of forming a stable coalition? The answer: virtually none.
By rights, Livni should be given the first crack at it. The problem for her is that there have been signals coming from the Labor Party (her natural coalition partner - and the current no.2 in Ehud Olmert's Kadima government) that they are considering a spell in the opposition in order to revitalise the party. This is what happened to the Likud at the last election - where they polled similar to how Labor seems to be polling now, and were bumped down to the fourth largest party. Ehud Barak and co must be looking at Netanyahu and thinking - two or three years, that could be us. Even if Labor agreed to be part of Livni's government, she would still have difficulty finding other partners. Meretz would never sit in a government with Yisrael Beiteinu, but Yisrael Beiteinu seem to be the third largest party, and conventional wisdom dictates that it would be difficult for Livni to form a coalition without them. However, a Livni coalition with Lieberman could hardly be seen as one that will advance the peace process - Livni's election promise. On top of that, it was disagreement between Shas (who normally can be bought off by anyone and everyone - my dad joked that they may as well rename themselves the Corruption Party) and Livni that resulted in this election, and there seems to be a genuine personal (and ideological) conflict here. Without Shas, or Meretz, Livni would not have a stable coalition. The only other option here would be some form of 'Grand Coalition' a la Germany, in which Kadima, Likud, and Labor join forces in the name of stability. Livni would be Prime Minister, and she would have to offer Netanyahu the Foreign Ministry (or, G-d forbid, the Finance Ministry) and Barak the Defense Ministry (or, again, Finance). It seems unlikely that Netanyahu would go for this, as he would be bringing his party into government with what is - essentially - an off-shoot of his party, but as a secondary partner, and I doubt whether the Likud faithful would agree to it. Another option might be some sort of rotation agreement - like in the 80s - but it would not be stable. Any 'Grand Coalition' would be plagued by ideological difficulties, and might find it difficult to get anything done as far as peace is concerned (given how important the centre-right Likud would be in the government).
So what about Bibi? The idea that he would be better placed to form a coalition, due to the 'right-wing bloc' having more MKs, is a false one. Avigdor Lieberman's campaign has not just hurled abuse at Israeli Arabs, but at the Ultra-Orthodox too. A key plank of Yisrael Beiteinu's program (and perhaps the only fundamental issue on which I agree with them) is the instigation of civil marriage. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that Lieberman would make this a condition of his joining government. No Orthodox party - particularly Shas and United Torah Judaism, the two Charedi parties - could agree to this. A government made up of the 63-64 right wing MKs would be no more stable than a Kadima-led government, as the defection of any one small party on any one issue - such as a religious issue - would bring the government into disrepute. Lieberman might choose power over promises, but that does not mean that his whole party will follow him. Yisrael Beiteinu's fundamental base is within the Russian immigrant community, many of whom are not considered Halakhically Jewish, and thus require the instigation of civil marriage. If Lieberman is indicted, as seems highly possible, his party might even split up. The fact is, Yisrael Beiteinu is an unknown commodity, it's quite new, and it has been built on one man (and his ability to attract Russian support), and it remains to be seen how it might cope without Lieberman, or as part of a government that did not further its policy. The three planks of Yisrael Beiteinu policy were Government Reform (in a bad way - increasing the power of the President and overriding the Supreme Court with an elected Judiciary, leaning towards a sort of Populist fascism similar to Mother Russia), civil marriage, and demanding loyalty from all its citizens (particularly the Arabs, but also the ultra-Orthodox, who do not serve in the army, and who are mainly non-Zionist). Lieberman seems to be in a catch 22 - with Bibi he might get government reform, but anything else would anger the orthodox sector, with Tzipi he might get civil marriage, but anything else will anger the centrists and centre-left on which her support is based.
All-in-all, I fail to see any viable coalition coming from these exit poll results, and I doubt that whatever is formed will last very long. It might be negotiations with the Palestinians (like with Shas in the last government) that tears the next government apart, or it might be moves towards secularisation (with civil marriage), or some other issue as yet unforseen. Whatever happens, I expect that Israel will be repeating the process in the next 1-3 years.