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How Zionist Union Could Build Ruling Coalition

With four days left before Israelis go to the polls, the battleground is noticeably shifting from the fight for voters’ ballots to the fight over the shape of the next governing coalition. Specifically, the battle has begun for position within the expected Yitzhak Herzog government. And the way things are shaping up, the person in the hot seat over the next few weeks will be Yair Lapid.

This is not to say that the retail battle for votes is over. The parties are still out in force trying to reach the last blocs of uncommitted voters who can make all the difference on March 17, as Moran Azulay explains in this excellent piece at the Ynetnews Engish-language site, examining the strategies, party by party.

But the polls over the last week have been pointing consistently downward for the ruling Likud, giving a solid lead to the Labor-Livni alliance known as the Zionist Union. Barring a big last-minute surprise (and there are nearly always big last-minute surprises) Labor’s Yitzhak Herzog will wind up with a significant plurality on Wednesday morning.

He’ll still have a tortuous climb to the prime minister’s office. Current polls show Herzog and his most natural allies, Meretz and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, with just over 40 seats between them in the 120-member Knesset by the end of Tuesday. The right-wing bloc around the Likud, including Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and the ultra-rightist Yahad, would have one or two seats more than the left, or roughly 44 seats. To gain a Knesset majority, either leader would have to reach out to the four uncommitted parties, with roughly 36 seats between them. As we’ll see in a moment, Netanyahu would have an easier time winning them over than Herzog would. But because Herzog’s party would have more seats than Netanyahu’s, President Reuven Rivlin would probably give Herzog first crack at trying to form a coalition. He’d have 28 days to seal the deal, with a possible 14-day extension, for a total of 42 days.

The uncommitted players include: the Arab-backed Joint List; the two Haredi/ultra-Orthodox parties; and the firmly centrist Kulanu party of populist Likud defector Moshe Kahlon. Failing that, Herzog would be forced to try a unity government with Likud. That will be everyone’s last choice, as the government would be paralyzed on the international front and Israel’s isolation would continue to deteriorate.

The likeliest scenario is a coalition with Kulanu and the Haredim. And that is precisely where the most intense jockeying is taking place right now.

Some observers expect Herzog to turn first to the Joint List. In fact, Netanyahu and his lieutenants have been trying hard to portray that as Herzog’s plan, in hopes of scaring right-leaning voters back into his camp. But the chances of that happening are somewhere below zero. The Joint List won’t agree; it already rejected a much less intimate bond, a surplus-vote agreement with the left-wing Meretz, because the list’s Palestinian nationalist wing, Balad, won’t cooperate with “Zionists.” If they did agree, it would make it impossible for Herzog to recruit any other parties on his right, due to anti-Arab feelings, and leave him stuck at 54 seats. And if he did somehow succeed in forming a government with the Joint List, the Likud and its allies would take to the streets and make Obama’s Washington look like a love-fest.

The easiest deal will be with Kahlon. But it won’t be easy. Kahlon wants to be finance minister. He’s openly declared that as his precondition for joining any coalition. His campaign has been entirely about his ability to ease the cost of living, and he needs the Finance Ministry to do that.

But Lapid was finance minister in the last government. Much of his current campaign has focused on the things he almost accomplished there before Netanyahu brought the government down prematurely. Lapid’s biggest campaign promise was that if he gets the ministry back he’ll finish what he started. They can’t both be finance minister.

The battle between Kahlon and Lapid began in earnest on Thursday in a series of televised attacks, the surest sign so far that Kahlon has begun angling for his seat in Herzog’s government. Kahlon went to the southern town of Kiryat Gat to be filmed in front of an empty field where he said Lapid had promised to build new housing, to illustrate how Lapid had failed to address the housing crisis. Lapid’s team fired back with film of housing already under construction just a few yards away. Lapid can’t return to a Netanyahu government. This fight is all about the Herzog coalition.

Bringing the Haredim on board will be much more complicated. Yaakov Litzman, the Brooklyn-reared Ger Hasid who heads United Torah Judaism, told Haaretz readers in a webchat this week that he and his allies would have no problem sitting in a government with Meretz. Their problem is with Yair Lapid. “With Lapid I won’t sit. Signed, sealed, plain and simple,” he said.

The issue is partly theological. On territorial concessions to the Palestinians, Meretz’s main issue, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, especially in the Ashkenazi community that UTJ represents, have no dispute. Unlike the Modern Orthodox Jews of the settler movement, Haredi Judaism doesn’t believe the state of Israel to be divinely ordained as part of a messianic process of return. Therefore, it doesn’t matter whether or not Israel retains sovereignty over Judea and Samaria. Litzman told Haaretz that they leave issues of foreign and defense policy to the cabinet, in which they do not serve. They take deputy ministerships and Knesset committee chairmanships, but not cabinet posts that would imply full participation in the Zionist enterprise. Largely for that reason they don’t serve in the army. They seek mainly to be left alone.

Lapid, however, has made integration of Haredim into mainstream society — the army, the workforce and the state educational core curriculum — one of his main banner causes. Legislation imposing the military draft on Haredi young men was his signal achievement during the last government. That’s put him utterly at odds with the Haredi leadership (though some Haredi activists agree with his agenda and two Haredi Jews served in his Knesset delegation).

Shas, the Sephardi wing of ultra-Orthodoxy, is slightly different. Aryeh Deri, the party’s leader, isn’t neutral on the issue of withdrawal and territorial compromise; he’s actively for it. Adina Bar-Shalom, the daughter of Shas’s late spiritual mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, said this week to a meeting of the Geneva Initiative that “if there is diplomatic progress in the next government, Shas, Deri and the Knesset members will push for it with all their might.”

Deri, questioned on Bar-Shalom’s comment in a cable TV interview the next day, said that he was “against dividing Jerusalem and mass evacuation [of settlers]. But I am for evacuation of isolated spots and I’m for negotiations.” “Isolated” settlements doesn’t mean “a handful”; it’s the term used to describe the settlements outside the main blocs, far from the Green Line and deep inside the territories.

A week earlier, Deri said in a Channel 10 interview that he intended to recommend Netanyahu as prime minister when he meets with the president after the election and that he wouldn’t join a left-wing government. The reason: His voter base tends to be right-leaning. “Shas and the Likud are a single population,” he said. He added, though, that he wouldn’t rule out Herzog as prime minister. In effect, regardless of his views, embracing the left before the election will drive his voters into the arms of the Likud or his far-right nemesis, Eli Yishai.

Shas’s Judaism differs from Torah Judaism’s in several key particulars. It accepts cabinet ministries. Its voter base includes a considerable proportion of traditionally-leaning but not strictly observant Sephardi Jews, many of whom serve in the army. And unlike Litzman, Deri says the odds of his agreeing to sit in the same coalition as Lapid are “close to zero,” which is not the same as zero.

So how does Herzog put together a coalition? He can’t win a Knesset majority unless he brings Lapid, Kahlon and the Haredim on board. Lose any one element and he’s lost his majority. But between Kahlon’s demand for Finance and the Haredi insistence on repealing the new draft law, Lapid is being asked to surrender his two main achievements.

Herzog can hold out and try to win Kahlon and the Haredim over by offering them some other goodies. But they can hold out, too. And they have a huge bargaining advantage: They can wait out Herzog’s 42 coalition-building days and then join with Netanyahu. Unlike Herzog, Netanyahu’s base allies present no in-principle barriers to Kahlon or the Haredim. Indeed, the right-wing news site NRG reported yesterday, based on unnamed sources in the Haredi camp, that Netanyahu has already offered them and Kahlon everything they want. He’s waiting with open arms.

How to get Lapid to bite the bullet? Even if he agreed to give up Finance, he’d have to demand a very senior ministry. All else aside, he will head the second-largest party in a Herzog coalition, following the Zionist Union itself.

One way to square the circle is to offer Lapid the Foreign Ministry, which in any case would be a much better fit for his talents than Finance. As compensation to his voters for having to give up all or much of his two main promises, put him to work on setting up the Saudi-U.S.-Egyptian-chaired regional peace conference that his ally Yaakov Peri, the former Shin Bet director, proposed last summer. Put Peri in the ministry of strategic affairs and intelligence, where he belongs, so he can stage-manage the process while Lapid travels the world repairing the international relationships that have been so battered in the last six years. Peri has the credibility and contacts with the Saudis to make such a conference a reality and create the regional anti-Iran, anti-ISIS alliance that Netanyahu talks about but can’t achieve. And the Saudis and Egyptians have the clout and the will to push the Palestinians to accept a peace agreement along lines Israel can live with.

The Palestinian peace process isn’t the top priority on Lapid’s personal agenda, but it is for much of his caucus, and for much of his voter base. And for a long-term personal and political legacy, it can’t be beat.

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