Who will be in Israel’s Next Government? by Richard Pater

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In all likelihood, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Israel Beteinu party will win next Tuesday’s election and be asked to form the next government.  The left and centre left parties have failed to unite behind a realistic prime ministerial candidate.  Furthermore, due to the dynamic of the Israeli political system, even if the left and right blocks come out close to even, the ultra-Orthodox parties will once again hold the balance of power, and inevitably endorse Netanyahu as Prime Minister when they are invited to the President’s residence to make their recommendation. However, Likud-Beteinu may not have it all their way.

This is because the vote could be closer than most of the opinion polls have been predicting, as around 18% (21 seats out of 120) are still undecided.  Following the results, the real fun begins. With Netanyahu’s Likud–Beteinu joint list expected to be the largest party, it will receive upward of 35 seats, (although not as much as the 42 the joint list has today or the prediction of 45+ when the merger was announced), and will need to bring in coalition partners to pass the golden 61 threshold.

The Prime Minister has two broad choices. He can either remain with his ‘natural partners’ – the ultra-Orthodox parties and the pro-settler right wing – or veer to the left, and peel off one or two centrist parties to give the government more balance.  He could of course choose a third option by blurring the above distinction and accommodate competing interests in the same government.  On top of the question of which parties will enter government is an added layer of intrigue; who will take the most important jobs within the Cabinet?

One person now unlikely to be in is Avigdor Lieberman, the Prime Minister’s partner and leader of Yisrael Beteinu. When their merger of Likud and Yisrael Beietenu was announced, Lieberman was apparently offered his choice of the three most senior cabinet positions: Foreign Affairs (in which he served in the outgoing government), Defence and Finance.  Since that deal, Lieberman has resigned his post as Foreign Minister, facing charges on breach of trust.  At this stage, he cannot serve as a minister, but until he is indicted he can continue to serve as a member of parliament, where he will likely take a role as head of the foreign affairs and defence committee. However, there are a plethora of interesting characters bidding to fill senior roles in the next government.

The Jewish Home (Habayit Hayehudi) party is led by the charismatic Naftali Bennett. He served in one of the elite infantry units in the IDF, then went on make millions in a hi-tech start-up company.  Although a darling of the settlers, policy-wise he is more concerned with cost of living and equality of the military draft.  Expect him to take a senior domestic portfolio in the next cabinet.

Another important party leader is Yair Lapid, the former news anchor and chat show host also entered politics last year. His party, Yesh Atid, (‘There is a future’) shares similar domestic concerns, and could also be in line for a cabinet portfolio.  Lapid’s dream job would be Minister of Education, but if his party was offered a different portfolio he would not necessarily take it himself, if someone else in his party was more qualified.

The favourite for Minister of Defence is a Likud MK and former IDF chief of staff and current Minister for Strategic Affairs, Moshe ‘Boogie’ Ya’alon.  Ya’alon is a security hawk, but a pragmatist. He supported the Oslo peace process at the time when he was a commander in the West Bank.  However, he grew cynical as he watched the strengthening of terrorism in the wake of the agreement.  Ya’alon is a qualified candidate, but he may feel the envy of other senior Likud figures who will one day compete for the party leadership, and recognise Ya’alon as a genuine contender.

If Netanyahu does lean to the centre when building his coalition, (and if they pass the electoral threshold) he may look to appoint Kadima chairman – and another former IDF chief of staff – Shaul Mofaz as Minister of Defence. A month ago this would have been considered a joke (for some it still is). However, whilst the Kadima party has been decimated, a well-crafted, positive campaign has led to a mini-revival in the polls. The current Defence Minister Ehud Barak remains an outside bet to remain in the post, even though he announced his retirement from politics in December.  A careful reading of his parting statement suggests he has left room to be called back into the cabinet as a professional minister.  His most significant achievement in the last government was building exceptionally good relations with US defence officials.  It will be crucial that the new defence minister or another senior minister takes on the role of close security coordination with Washington.

Gidon Saar, the outgoing Minister for Education is another potential future Likud leader and even prime minister.  He, too, will expect a promotion after finishing in top in the Likud primaries two elections running.  As Minister for Education, he presided over a dramatic improvement in Israel’s international ranking in maths and science.  He could potentially serve as Israel’s next Foreign Minister or Finance Minister.

Of course, the person who most wants to be Foreign Minister (her old job in the Olmert government) is Tzipi Livni.  She has said though she would only take the position if the government’s guidelines matched her own ideological commitment rigorously to pursue final status negotiations with the Palestinians.  Her inclusion would seem at odds with that of the Jewish Home party.

The finance portfolio is considered by some a poisoned chalice.  There is growing concern that the incumbent government will face a large budget deficit. Aspiring politicians are rarely keen to be directly associated with tax hikes and cuts in expenditure.  However the seniority and high profile of the post means it is difficult to say no.  There is one theory that current Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz will continue for another year. At which time Ruby Rivlin, the speaker of the Knesset hopes to be elected President.  Steinitz could then take over as speaker – and a clean, vindicated Lieberman take his place and return to the cabinet as minister of finance.

We will of course need to wait till next Wednesday, and see exactly where the votes fall, to have a better understanding of who will form the next Israeli government.

A version of this article was first published by Conservative Home.