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Bibi’s coalition-building blues

The Israeli elections are over, right?

Well, yes and no. Israel’s elections happened about a month ago, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu Party won the largest number of seats – which meant that he got to form the next government.

Which is where it’s gotten messy. The elections may be over, but Netanyahu isn’t even close to assembling a coalition.

When the ballots were counted, the coalition options looked pretty straightforward. Israel’s right-wing bloc had won a slim majority, but pundits were predicting that Netanyahu could form a coalition with the centrist Yesh Atid Party, the hawkish Jewish Home, the tiny, centrist Kadima and the center-left Hatnua.

That would have given Netanyahu 70 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats – and a government committed to including haredi Orthodox Jews in Israel’s mandatory draft – the country’s burning political issue.

That coalition might still happen, but a mix of personal feuds and policy differences is getting in the way. Netanyahu doesn’t seem to like Jewish Home’s chairman, Naftali Bennett, who used to be his chief of staff until the two parted on bad terms. And soon after the elections, Yair Lapid, Yesh Atid’s chairman, told the press that he expects to be prime minister within a few years.

Then Lapid and Bennett entered into an alliance, forging an agreement on drafting haredim and declaring that they would either both join the coalition or both stay out. Together, their 31 seats equal Netanyahu’s.

When Netanyahu countered with a more lenient draft proposal of his own, they balked, leading to a stalemate that’s only gotten more intractable. On Thursday, Bennett said that sitting in the opposition “would be no tragedy.”

Netanyahu has signed one coalition partner – Hatnua, led by Tzipi Livni – but she’s a pretty strange bedfellow. Livni based her campaign on vehement criticism, from the left, of Netanyahu’s peace negotiation policies. Now, she just signed on to be in charge of the Netanyahu government’s peace negotiations.

In any case, Livni’s six seats barely help Netanyahu, and may have made life harder for him. Bennett has rejected the idea of a two-state solution; he’ll likely have a hard time adding his 12 seats to a government committed to that principle.

Israeli papers now report that Netanyahu is pushing for the haredi parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism – to join him, but that would bring the coalition only to 55, six seats short of a majority. To fill it out, Netanyahu would need Bennett, Lapid or the Labor Party to join him. But the Labor party has vowed to oppose Netanyahu, and Lapid – who ran on a platform of drafting haredim – would probably not want to join a coalition with them.

So what happens now? Netanyahu has until March 16, at the latest, to form his government. If he fails, the responsibility could pass to someone else – though it’s unclear who.

And if that person declines the honor?  A new round of elections will, once again, be only months away. 

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