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Feb 11/09. For all the confusion prompted by the near parity of Kadima and the Likud in Tuesday's election, and even before the final adjustments necessitated by Thursday's tally of soldiers' votes and the complex surplus-vote distribution system, one of the most critical pieces of arithmetic is straightforward.

And it shows that notwithstanding Kadima's victory claims, and its leader Tzipi Livni's insistence that the people of Israel have given her their backing, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu can reasonably hope to build a narrow coalition majority with "natural" allies, and she cannot.

This puts Netanyahu firmly in the driver's seat on the road to becoming prime minister. And it places Livni - though she led her party to far greater success than some of its own optimists had anticipated and thus cemented her leadership hold - in the back seat. He can probably block her; she probably can't block him.

That is not to say that Netanyahu has a smooth ride ahead. It may yet be eased a little when those last votes are calculated. Precedent suggests that the soldiers' votes are unlikely to boost the center-Left; they might well lift the Right, and perhaps Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu, which had stressed a shared burden of national service.

Netanyahu was speaking from the heart during the election campaign when he said he wanted to lead a broad government, with a range of Zionist parties from across the political spectrum. He doesn't want to have to rely on a narrow coalition, vulnerable to internal pressures and perceived both domestically and abroad as intransigent as regards progress with the Palestinians.

Chiefly, a narrow Likud-led coalition requires the fiercely secularist Lieberman and the Torah-driven Shas to put aside fundamental differences that go to the root of Jewish nationhood.




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