Monday, January 7, 2013

Struggle For Kingmaker: Yesh Atid Versus Shas

Over the weekend in Israel, Hatnua party leader Tzipi Livni arranged to meet with Labor's Shelly Yachimovitch and Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid to discuss running as a united bloc in Israel's elections on January 22.  Lapid has not ruled out joining a Netanyahu-led government and stated that he is against the idea of a bloc.  Nonetheless he agreed to meet with Livni and Yachimovitch to discuss in principle what would be an alignment of centrist and center-left parties.

While most analysis focuses on Yesh Atid in the context of these meetings, there is another key player which impacts how Yesh Atid will react to these talks: The religious Shas party.  Analysis of Shas has focused particularly on the balancing role it is playing with regards to the Jewish Home party led by Naftali Bennett.  Bennett's party recently overtook Shas and a poll of polls released today has Jewish Home 4 seats ahead.  To be sure, this competition for religious votes is an important dynamic which affects not only the next coalition in Israel but the role of religion in Israeli politics and society as well.

However, Shas plays another important balancing function - acting as a counterweight to Yesh Atid.  On Saturday, Israel's Housing Minister Ariel Atias, a member of Shas, warned against a Likud-Lapid government.  Today, an unnamed Likud party official sent a message to Channel 2 saying that if Lapid "gets a number of seats that could compensate for Shas' power, we would prefer to sit with him and not with them."  Regardless of whether this official has actual decision-making authority, Shas is clearly feeling the heat from a similarly sized party which challenges its spot in the next coalition.  While it would probably prefer to join Netanyahu in the next government, Shas may well find itself on the outside when the next government is seated. 

Yesh Atid is a particularly attractive coalition partner for PM Netanyahu for three reasons.  First, it is much more closely aligned ideologically with Likud than Shas.  Second, while centrist, Yesh Atid's leader Yair Lapid is not as politically experienced as the Shas leadership, making negotiations to join the coalition easier on Likud's end.  Finally, PM Netanyahu may be under pressure from Naftali Bennett not to include Shas in the coalition in order to maximize Jewish Home's influence as a religious party.  Bringing in Yesh Atid would preserve the strength of Netanyahu's coalition numbers wise, but without alienating Bennett - a man who has quickly become a mover and shaker in Israeli politics.

Shas is therefore operating under a reasonable suspicion it could be ousted from the coalition come February, opening an opportunity for Labor and other opposition parties.  Since Labor is a secular party campaigning on populist social welfare policies, discussions between it and Shas - whose members often receive social welfare payouts despite not working - will be muted before the elections.  However, once the elections are over, discourse between the two parties may become more open, especially if Yair Lapid looks to be aligning with Likud Beiteinu.  Shas will probably try to play Labor and Likud Beiteinu off each other but may well end up in the opposition.

All these considerations go to show that while some may consider Israel's elections a done deal, the day after elections will be just as chaotic and uncertain as any post-election wrangling in the Jewish State.  While the Prime Minister seems all but certain to cruise to victory on the 22nd, the ultimate balance of Israel's political power is still very much unknown.