People wait at a bus stop near billboards picturing politicians Tzipi Livni,… (Abir Sultan / European Pressphoto…)
JERUSALEM — As Israelis head to the polls Tuesday, most are expecting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party to secure the right to form the nation's next government.
But while a third Netanyahu term appears likely, there's still some suspense about which political parties will join his coalition to create a majority in Israel's 120-member Knesset.
The composition of that government will play a major role in determining Israel's stance on issues such as Palestinian statehood, relations with the U.S. and how to deal with Iran's nuclear development program.
"What will happen the day after elections is probably more interesting than the elections themselves," said Ofer Kenig, head of political parties research at the Israel Democracy Institute.
A joint candidate slate between Netanyahu's party and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party is expected to win between 32 and 35 seats, so the prime minister will need to rely on other parties to secure a parliamentary majority of at least 61.
The left-leaning Labor Party, which is expected to win the second-highest number of votes, has said it will not join a Netanyahu-led government. But most other parties have signaled a willingness to take part, giving the prime minister maneuvering room if he is provided the chance to create the next government.
Most expect Netanyahu to fall back on the relatively stable right-wing bloc he created in 2009, including ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties. That coalition enabled his last government to nearly complete a four-year term, a rarity under Israel's volatile political system.
"He can choose a small right-wing coalition," said Hani Zubida, political science professor at Max Stern Yezreel Valley College in the Galilee. "That's a freebie, his get-out-jail-free Monopoly card."
But recent polls suggest such a purely right-wing coalition may provide Netanyahu with only a slim majority. It would also probably exacerbate Israel's international relations with the West, keep Palestinian peace talks on a back burner and complicate Netanyahu's efforts to resolve pressing domestic problems.
Chief among them is a soaring $10-billion budget deficit that will require deep spending cuts, including perhaps government subsidies to the ultra-Orthodox and Jewish settlers in the West Bank. It was the inability to agree on such cuts for the 2013 budget that helped bring down the last government in the fall.
To help broaden his political platform, Netanyahu is likely to reach out to centrist parties, including former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's Movement party, the struggling Kadima party founded by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and Yesh Atid, a new entrant led by former journalist Yair Lapid. Though all three have been critical of Netanyahu's policies, none has ruled out joining him under the right circumstances.
Inclusion of those parties would theoretically provide Netanyahu with a margin of extra votes to minimize the clout of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party or the fast-rising ultranationalist party Jewish Home, which rejects Palestinian statehood and seeks annexation of parts of the West Bank.
A broader coalition would be particularly helpful to Netanyahu in the early days of the next government, when the Cabinet may need to vote on austerity programs that might prove unpopular with religious parties like Shas.
But the question will be what centrist leaders demand in return for their support and whether the prime minister can juggle the opposing political factions in such a coalition.
Livni, who refused to join the last Netanyahu government because she said he was not serious about peace talks with Palestinians, said at a weekend campaign event that a strong showing by her party would enable her to "force Netanyahu to do what he does not really want to do — a political process" with Palestinians.
Yet Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, who has overseen the nationalist party's surprising surge in popularity over the last month, may also join Netanyahu's government. Bennett's supporters call peace talks a waste of time and oppose a two-state solution.
Likewise, Lapid's Yesh Atid wants to draft ultra-Orthodox young men into the army, while Shas is staunchly opposed.
Some say Netanyahu, who served his first term as prime minister in the late 1990s, may find it impossible to balance such competing demands.
"Netanyahu will have to decide what kind of coalition he wants, and choose between Bennett and the right, or a coalition with the center-left," said Hebrew University political science professor Tamir Sheafer. "It is difficult to see centrist parties joining a coalition with Bennett because it will be impossible to advance the peace process."
Much will depend upon how many seats the various parties secure in Tuesday's vote. Recent surveys suggest as many as 15% of voters remain undecided, and Israelis have a habit of surprising pollsters on election day.
Voter turnout could also make a difference. Israelis have expressed a growing disinterest in the political system, with turnout falling from 80% in the late 1990s to 65% in 2009, a drop that experts say tends to favor right-leaning parties.
Sobelman is a news assistant in The Times' Jerusalem bureau.