And the Coalition Is....
With 97% of the vote counted, Kadima has slipped even further, and has won only a disappointing 28 mandates. Labor has won 20 seats, exceeding expectations. A really big winner is the Sefardic Hareidi (fervently religious Orthodox Jewish) party, Shas, which won 13 seats. Ehud Olmert could put together a solid 72-seat center-left coalition with Kadima, Labor, Shas, Meretz (a far-left Socialist party with practically Stalinist origins, which won 4 seats), and the Pensioners (7 seats).
The prospect of a Hareidi religious party such as Shas joining such a coalition is not at all far-fetched. The constituency of Shas is poor and working class Jews from North Africa, Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Iran, who have great respect for traditional Judaism, even in the case of individuals who may not themselves be strictly observant. A Shas leader once observed, "The typical Shas voter goes to the synagogue on Saturday morning and the Maccabi soccer game on Saturday afternoon." They probably relate well to Amir Peretz, the head of Labor, who was born in Morrocco in 1952, speaks Arabic, and, as the former head of the Israeli national trade union, the Histadrut, is seen as the champion of the working person.
Shas's main policy concerns are financial support for large families and support for its religious schools and social programs. Labor may well sympathize with the first of those concerns, and Kadima is probably willing to pay the price for accommodating the second, if it means a workable coalition headed by Ehud Olmert.
Finally, Shinui (Change), the most overtly anti-religious of the left-center parties, formerly headed by Tommy Lapid, has gone from the third largest party in the Knesset to zero seats, a complete wipe-out. That means that Kadima and Labor will not have to buck a politically powerful anti-religious Knesset faction in order to make the necessary deal to buy Shas' participation.
Now the bargaining begins. It is a uniquely Israeli process, combining western democratic politics with the Middle Eastern shouk (market).