Israeli political scramble: Plenty of talks, but few deals on the horizon

Party leaders try to maximize support in desperate attempt to form government, stave off fifth elections.

By Paul Shindman, World Israel News

Israel’s political leaders are meeting in a whirlwind of negotiations on Sunday in their bid to reach compromises that will allow one of them to form a government in the wake of last month’s inconclusive national elections.

All 13 parties that won seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament, will meet with President Reuven Rivlin Monday for a round of consultations to advise him on who they support to form a coalition government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party won 30 seats, the most of any party, and is scheduled to meet first with Rivlin, who will hear from all the parties throughout Monday.

So far, Netanyahu has the firm backing of one right-wing and two religious parties, which gives him only 52 seats, nine short of 61 needed for a majority government.

The opposition forces trying to oust Netanyahu are led by the center-left Yesh Atid party, which won 17 seats. This group, however, is a motley collection of smaller parties from across the political spectrum that at best could garner only 56 seats.

As of Sunday, it remained unknown who Rivlin would choose first to attempt to form a government. He made it clear last week he might not choose Netanyahu, despite his standing as leader of the largest party. Instead, Rivlin  said he might go with another recommendation.

The chosen one will have up to six weeks maximum to form a coalition, after which Rivlin could let another party leader try.

Right-wing Yemina party leader Naftali Bennett was expected to meet with Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid for their second meeting in as many days. With his seven seats, Bennett is one of the potential kingmakers. While he and Netanyahu have a fractious relationship, Bennett is keeping his cards close to his chest and not ruling out sitting with Netanyahu or an opposition coalition that would end Netanyahu’s run as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

Both Bennett and Lapid covet the premiership and might agree to oust Netanyahu by sharing power, with each taking a turn at the helm of the country. They would need the support of six seats from Gideon Saar’s New Hope party.

Saar split from the Likud before the elections in a bid to oust Netanyahu, and although he considers his party right-wing, he has given his word never to sit in a Netanyahu-led government.

While many of the party heads have called for compromise, all possible coalition combinations would require someone to either breach pre-election promises or break with their party’s ideological commitments, or both.

One of the biggest ideological compromises would be if the Islamist Ra’am (United Arab List) party joined Netanyahu, who before the elections reached out to Arab voters. However, one of Netanyahu’s key coalition partners would be the Religious Zionism party, whose leader Bezalel Smotrich has reiterated his opposition to such an arrangement.

Ra’am’s four seats could be enough to either keep Netanyahu in power or to replace him.

If the parties are unable to compromise and form a government, the country will go back to the polls, most likely in September. A poll published last week by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that 80.3% of Israeli’s believe the country will be forced into another election.

The Knesset will be sworn in Tuesday and start to work in its capacity as a caretaker government, which can run the country but not make any major policy changes nor approve a national budget.

Rivlin is expected to announce his choice of candidate to form a government later this week.