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Monday, 27 January, 2003, 10:39 GMT
Coalition poker game
A supporter of the secular Shinui confronts an ultra-orthodox Jewish man during election campaigning
The religious-secular debate is strong in Israel

Winning an election in Israel is never easy.

After weeks of campaigning, the winner is unable to rest on his laurels and take up residence in the prime minister's office. The end of the election marks the beginning of the coalition poker game.

Governments in Israel are always coalitions, because no one party ever wins an outright majority. Whoever wins knows he must spend the next few weeks negotiating with his former opponents to form a ruling coalition.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon looks set to remain in power
If he wins , Sharon will have an uphill struggle forming a coalition

Forming a new government takes great skill to weigh the demands and conditions of individual parties.

A coalition must be strong enough to survive the inevitable disagreements over government policy.

The last three governments all collapsed earlier than expected because the coalitions broke down.

After the last parliamentary election in 1999, the largest party in the Knesset [the Israeli parliament] was Labour, with only 26 of the 120 seats available.

The government must have the support of at least 61 seats - a majority of the Knesset.


The task is made harder because the electoral system in Israel encourages a lot of parties.

It also enables the smaller and medium sized parties to wield considerable power in the pre-coalition discussions.

They will negotiate hard to gain as many ministerial positions as possible - the more power they have in the new cabinet, the greater their ability to influence the government's decisions.

The Labour Party may not do as well as hoped this time round
Will Labour's Mitzna stick to his policy of not joining a Sharon-led coalition

The difficulty for the new prime minister is to balance all these factors. After the collapse of the coalition last autumn, Ariel Sharon risked his political future by deciding to call early elections.

The prime minister could have made a new deal with other parties, but he declared that he was not willing "to surrender to political blackmail from any party."

The task of forming the government is given by the president to the leader of the largest party. Opinion polls suggest this will be Mr Sharon, who also leads the Likud party.

He was elected prime minister in direct elections in 2001 and formed the largest cabinet in Israel's history, balancing parties that ranged from the centre left to the ultra-nationalist, from the secular to the ultra-orthodox.

So the key question is who will Mr Sharon invite into his coalition, assuming the polls are correct and he wins on Tuesday?

There are various possible combinations:

  • National Unity government: This is Ariel Sharon's preferred option and reflects his previous government, uniting the centre-left Labour party with right-wing and religious parties.

  • Right coalition: This would be a significant shift to the right, with the Likud party joined by the ultra-nationalist parties like the National Union, and the religious parties like Shas.

  • Secular coalition: A combination of what are expected to be the three largest parties in the Knesset - Likud, Labour and the secular Shinui party.

Analysts suggest the national unity government is the most likely, although that depends very much on the Labour party.

Labour was in government for nearly two years until it quit last autumn, sparking the crisis that led to the early elections. Its new leader, Amram Mitzna, has vowed not to join any government led by Mr Sharon.

However there are members of his party who do want to rejoin the government.

Key stories




See also:

22 Jun 00 | Middle East
05 Nov 02 | Middle East
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