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Israel Ponders Possibilities for Future Government as Elections Near

Haifa, Israel — Now that Ehud Olmert has put an end to the guessing game about his future, Israel has a new favorite topic of speculation: what, exactly, will happen in the coming months.

Since Olmert’s July 30 announcement that he plans to step down as prime minister, public attention has shifted to the leadership race within his Kadima party. Topic No. 1 is who will win and what this will mean for the battered fortunes of the ruling party.

But Israelis are already looking beyond the September primary. The critical question is whether the next Kadima leader will stand a chance of pulling together a coalition from the existing Knesset, thus winning the prime minister’s post without new elections. If not, the nation will go to new elections, and most current polls show Kadima losing to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Despite the traditional dominance of Israeli politics by issues of foreign policy and the peace process, it looks increasingly likely that building a new Kadima coalition will hinge on a purely domestic issue: the insistence of ultra-Orthodox party Shas that it will not prop up any coalition that does not increase child welfare payments.

“A notable result of the current reality of Kadima’s disarray, Labor’s weakness and Netanyahu’s growing popularity puts Shas in an extremely strong position and allows it to demand what it feels,” said Asher Arian, senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.

The first step in the coming transfer is the September 17 Kadima leadership primary. Once a winner is declared, Olmert has vowed to tender his resignation. At that point, President Shimon Peres will tap the lawmaker he deems best positioned to form a coalition and ask him or her to open negotiations with other parties. According to convention, this will be the leader of the largest party, Kadima.

The designee will have 28 days — which can be extended by another 14 days if needed — to cut the necessary deals and secure the support of 61 lawmakers required for a coalition. If this bid fails, a second lawmaker of Peres’s choosing will get a chance. If there is still no government formed, and if Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik cannot suggest a viable alternative, elections will be called and held within 90 days. Olmert would stay in charge of a caretaker government until the new administration is in place.

The Kadima leadership race includes four candidates who have been jockeying for more than a year. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is considered the clear frontrunner. According to a poll published August 1 in the mass-circulation daily Yediot Aharonot, if all four candidates for Kadima leadership remain in the race, Livni will win a four-way race with 41%. Her main rival, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, would lag behind her at 32%.

Two other candidates, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter and Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, remain far behind at 13% and 10%, respectively, according to the poll. If Livni and Mofaz were in a two-horse race today, she would beat him 51% to 43%.

The latest twist since Olmert’s announcement is the significant effect that Kadima’s choice of leader will have on the party’s electability. The three polls released on the subject August 1 all indicate that Livni would win more seats than Mofaz in a general election.

The main explanation, said Camille Fuchs, the Tel Aviv University professor who oversaw a Haaretz survey on the topic, is that the hawkish Mofaz, a former defense minister and military chief of staff, “is not differentiated from Likud” — meaning that those on the left of Likud who may consider voting for Kadima see no point if it is led by Mofaz.

While their effect on the party’s electability is important to both Livni and Mofaz, they both hope it will not be immediately put to the test. Instead, both aim to build a coalition and avoid elections. This, however, presents stark challenges.

Kadima currently has 29 seats, which means that it needs the support of another 32 lawmakers to reach its majority. The only alliance that is widely considered as a given is United Torah Judaism, the Ashkenazic ultra-Orthodox party. With those six seats, Kadima would need another 26.

Labor, the second biggest party, could provide 19 more. The more centrist Livni would be a more natural partner than Mofaz, but Labor is thought unlikely to desert either on ideological grounds.

There is, however, a pragmatic question for Labor: whether it would give this support and allow Kadima to hang on to power, or whether it would be in its interest to force elections.

Given the left-leaning party’s poor showing in recent opinion polls, and the fact that elections almost certainly would see it displaced as the second-largest party, analysts say it is likely that Labor will be eager to avoid elections and will thus cooperate in a coalition.

The trickier question concerns Likud, which shares third place in the current Knesset, with 12 seats.

Both Livni and Mofaz have spoken of their desire to see a broad unity government, which means bringing the right wing on board. At a party rally August 3, Mofaz pledged to secure Likud’s cooperation, saying he has “withstood tougher challenges before.” Livni outlined the same hope at an earlier party gathering, claiming that “out of this swamp it is possible to generate a very broad common denominator.”

But Netanyahu has said he will not cooperate, and analysts believe he will stick to his guns.

“He will not join. He has nothing to gain by doing so,” Israel Broadcasting Authority analyst Hanan Crystal told the Forward. Netanyahu, he said, is set to gain enormously in elections and therefore has no interest in keeping Kadima in power and giving it a chance to resuscitate its popularity.

This would leave Kadima dependent, for the majority of its parliamentary shortfall, on its current coalition partner, Shas, which, like Likud, has 12 seats. But this is no done deal. Shas could feel ill at ease with Livni, according to Tel Aviv University political scientist Yoav Peled, an expert on the party.

“It will feel much better with Mofaz — firstly because he’s a man, secondly because he’s a right-winger,” he said.

But Shas is “notoriously opportunistic in compromising on matters of principle,” Peled added, and the choice of Kadima leader probably would not be the make-or-break issue in whether it will prop up a new coalition.

Rather, it looks as if the success or failure of Kadima leader’s government will hinge on the issue of child welfare payments.

Shas’s rallying cry has long been higher welfare payments to families for each child they have. It is a message that resounds strongly with Shas voters, who typically have large families and come from the lower social strata. In 2002, these payments were cut back and Shas walked out of the coalition, refusing to vote for the change.

Though the party returned to the coalition a week later and voted through the measure, it has constantly been looking for an opportunity to undo it.

If the Kadima leaders do not meet Shas’s demand, given the likelihood that any coalition will be “unstable and fluid,” Peled said the religious party will behave as if elections are in the air and be reluctant to irk voters by compromising on the issue.

“Shas comes out of all this extremely well,” Peled added. “It has no pretensions of leading the coalition and can demand what it wants.”

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