Likud and Labor: The New Odd Couple of Israeli Politics

Following a rowdy session replete with impassioned speeches and audience jeers and boos, on Tuesday night the central committee of Israel's Labor Party voted 680-507 to join Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu's governing coalition.

Netanyahu has been desperate to go beyond a narrow right-wing coalition ever since the February 10 elections. He enticed Labor's 13 members of Knesset (MK) with a generous deal that will give them five cabinet posts, two deputy ministerial positions, and chairmanships of major Knesset committees. Netanyahu's earlier attempt to get Tzipi Livni's 28-MK Kadima Party to join his 27-MK Likud Party in the new government failed.

The 13 Labor MKs were sharply split between a group headed by Defense Minister (both currently and in the new government) Ehud Barak that favored joining and a more left-leaning group that denounced joining the coalition as an ideological sellout likely to lead to Labor's extinction. It's possible that the remaining six naysayers will -- in a move that would indeed jeopardize Labor's future -- split from the party to form a new opposition faction.

Fifteen MKs from the secular-right Yisrael Beiteinu Party and 11 MKs from the religious, right-leaning Shas Party have already joined Netanyahu's coalition. If Labor holds together, it means that Netanyahu now has a solid majority coalition of 66 (out of 120) MKs and is in a stronger position to negotiate with the remaining small, religious, and right wing parties that are still interested in joining.

Who are the winners and losers in this new state of affairs?

One loser is undoubtedly Netanyahu's Likud Party itself. Likud members are outraged at the number of cabinet posts Labor has received, along with those posts allocated to Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, and a non-party professional as justice minister. This leaves very few positions for those within Likud, even though Likud's 27 mandates make it by far the largest party. As a result, talented and popular Likudniks like former Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon and former Minister Benny Begin have been left out of the top posts. In his zeal to include Labor, Netanyahu has in fact handed his own colleagues a raw deal.

Beyond the Likud Party, though, the Israeli electorate isn't exactly getting what it voted for. Although polls show a large majority of the public in favor of  a national-unity government of some kind, Labor, with its lowly 13 seats -- and, moreover, as part of the center-left bloc roundly defeated by the center-right bloc -- is getting far more than its electoral due. This stems from Israel's difficult parliamentary system, where people vote solely for parties of widely varying descriptions and sizes, and never for individual leaders or geographic representatives.