JERUSALEM — After a lackluster three-month campaign, few doubt that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on his way to re-election. But the makeup of Netanyahu's next government remains a mystery.
If re-elected on Tuesday, Netanyahu will face a critical decision that will define his term.
He can form a majority coalition with the hard-line and religious parties he often calls his natural partners – or reach across the aisle and try to bring centrist parties into a broader-based government that might be more amenable to pursuing peace and ending, at least partly, the occupation of the West Bank and other territories. His decision will have deep implications.
A narrow coalition of parties that oppose concessions to the Palestinians, while the easier option, would mean continued deadlock in Mideast peace efforts and increased confrontation with the international community, including Israel's key ally, the United States.
A broad coalition could force Netanyahu to give powerful Cabinet posts to more moderate figures as the price of their support, and would likely draw fierce opposition from within his own Likud Party.
In either case, the odds for a breakthrough in peace talks appear faint at best, because no Netanyahu-led coalition is likely to offer the Palestinians better peace terms than those they already have received and either rejected or ignored under previous governments. Netanyahu's own positions fall far short of anything acceptable to the Palestinians.
Likud officials refuse to say which way they are leaning. Netanyahu's campaign chairman, Cabinet Minister Gideon Saar, said Thursday the party hasn't even started thinking about building the coalition.
This would send the wrong message that we've already won, Saar said. He said the party is focused on capturing as many seats in Israel's fragmented Knesset, or parliament, as possible.
Under Israel's system, parties win a number of seats based on the percentage of votes they receive. No party has ever won an outright majority in the 120-seat parliament. The leader of the party with the best chance of cobbling together a majority is tapped as prime minister and gets the first chance to form a coalition.