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Today Israel prime minister–designate Binyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu met for the second time with Tzipi Livni, head of the Kadima faction. And, again, Livni said no to a national-unity government.

Good for her. She has said she won't be a fig leaf for a far-right government. Apparently she means it.

The only other party that isn't either haredi or further to the right of the Likud that Bibi could invite into a coalition is Labor, and Ehud Barak, head of that party, has ruled it out.

So now Bibi has to cobble together his coalition out of the Likud's 27 mandates plus the rest of the 65 mandates of the parties that recommended that President Shimon Peres appoint Bibi to form a government. Everyone is convinced Bibi will form a hard-right government that will be short-lived. But here's an issue: Can Bibi form a government at all?

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Netanyahu has until April 3 to form a government of at least 61 Knesset members. The "kingmaker," a.k.a. Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu, would be the likely junior partner in Netanyahu's coalition. Lieberman, we'll recall, is the man who has stated he believes Arab citizens (and religious Jews) who will not swear loyalty oaths to Israel should lose their citizenship. He also believes in transferring the Arab Triangle to Palestinian governance in exchange for settlement blocs in the West Bank — a plan no other party backs.

But now we have Lieberman saying he supports the creation of a Palestinian state. Oh really? We've heard this from right-wing politicians in the past. Ariel Sharon said he was moving toward the creation of a Palestinian state; the problem was that Sharon's creation would have been Gaza plus a rump West Bank and no Palestinian control over East Jerusalem. Lieberman has not, to my knowledge, been more forthcoming with regard to what kind of Palestinian state he envisions.

Nevertheless, it probably doesn't matter. If Lieberman indeed supports a Palestinian state, then he's not only at odds with Netanyahu and the stated Likud platform, but he is at odds with National Union and Jewish Home and, more importantly, their 7 mandates. If Bibi loses those 7 mandates, he doesn't have a majority anymore. He's 3 seats shy.

Even more problematic is Lieberman's secularism. He ran and presumably won many of his votes based on the idea of legalizing civil marriage in Israel, in violation of the status quo agreement between the government and the Orthodox Jews that has been in place since 1948. Lieberman's "support for a Palestinian state" could be as flimsy as Sharon's, but on the issue of civil marriage, he's resolute.

This introduces one of two scenarios. The first is that any one of the religious or national-religious parties could refuse to join the government. Bibi could lose Shas and its 11 mandates, most significantly, again causing him to be unable to form a government. He could lose Jewish Home, leaving him with an ultra-slim 2-seat majority. He could, for that matter, lose United Torah Judaism entirely, leaving him with no majority, or, as a result of a rabbinical ruling handed down today, split UTJ's factions, leaving Bibi with one but not the other and, again, a very, very slim majority of seats. This ruling, by the way, comes on the heels of UTJ's statement that coalition talks were not going all that smoothly.

The other scenario is that the National Union, which is supposedly more nationalist than religious, could end up taking issue with Lieberman's inclusion in the government on the civil-marriage question. Faction leader Ya'akov Katz certainly looks religious, and his biography on Wikipedia does say he studied at Merkaz ha-Rav, the national-religious seminary that gave rise to Gush Emunim and the religious settler movement generally speaking. If Katz leaves National Union over the issue, then that still gives Netanyahu a 3-seat majority, but he can't afford to lose any of the 65 seats he claimed he had locked up on election day.

So while it's likely that Bibi will be able to cobble together this "coalition of the loony," there's a distinct possibility that he won't be. That will leave Livni as the next candidate to have an opportunity to form a government. What would her chances look like? That depends on what the body count is like when Bibi is finished.

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to aemathisphd on Fri Feb 27, 2009 at 09:40 AM PST.

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