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Understanding Israeli election polls, part II

I would like to address some of the responses to my previous post (“It’s all about the blocs: Understanding Israeli election polls“), since they raise an important issue regarding the difference between an analysis of ideology and political behavior.

Several readers challenged my use of the right vs. left division of the entire political system in Israel, claiming it to be simplistic and not matching the ideology of some of the parties. Several examples were made, mostly regarding what I called the center-left bloc. As “Kolumn9” rightly noted, Kadima is an offspring of the Likud, and ideologically could just the same be counted with the right. Some readers referred to the Arab party Ra’am-Ta’al, whose conservative agenda is very far from that of the Jewish left which has been heavily influenced by liberalism in couple of decades.

Yet, we should remember that I was not trying to say something about ideology. My analysis is based on political behavior, and especially political behavior in the context of determining the identity of the next prime minister. As such, I found this grouping by blocs to be the best analytic tool available. In the context of this election cycle, the working assumption is that after the elections, both Kadima and Ra’am-Ta’al will behave as opposition parties to Netanyahu, or as members of the center-left bloc, regardless whether in essence they are not really left-wing parties.

Furthermore, the possibility that Kadima or Ra’am-Ta’al (or Yesh Atid, for that matter) will join the right following the elections only supports my argument. My main point is that all the data available from the last four years points to the fact that Netanyahu is about to be reelected as prime minister. In other words, I wanted to rule out the opposite assumption, that there are one or more candidates with a fair shot at assembling a new government. Thus, I took the most “optimistic” working assumption for the opposition – assuming a coherent bloc that could join hands in stopping Netanyahu – and checked the data available. It showed that even this rather unlikely scenario falls short of the sixty-seat-threshold. Election predictions should always be taken with a grain of salt, but in this case, the numbers are astonishingly conclusive. The table reflected the best scenario for the left – and even that wasn’t good enough.

In reality, while the right is fairly united and coordinated, the center-left bloc is no bloc at all, and it’s enough to recall that the Arab parties and Hadash didn’t even back Tzipi Livni in the previous round. There are two blocs here – center and left, and both are highly fragmented. The truth is that the red bar is unnecessary. All we need to watch is whether the blue bar falls under the 60 seats line. If that happens, we could speculate on alternative coalition.

A different point of view – one that challanges the blue, rather than the red line – is presented by Brent Sasley in this post.

Over the years, coalition governments have been composed of all sorts of parties along all kinds of spectrums. Shas has served in coalitions led by Likud, Labor, and Kadima, while the National Religious Party has done so with Likud and Labor, and different factions now in United Torah Judaism (UTJ) have entered governments under Labor and Likud.

Third, the size of the two blocs most analysts construct out of the surveys might be too inclusive. Most polls give the “right” bloc about 65-68 seats, and the left about 52-55 seats, or thereabouts. But “right” includes Shas and UTJ. Given these parties’ greater concern with domestic social and economic issues, particularly the need to ensure resources for their respective communities, and the fact that they are not opposed in principle to serving in leftwing governments, it’s not clear they should be so firmly placed in this bloc.


So if Shas (10-11 seats), UTJ (5-6 seats), and the Arab parties (10-11 seats) are removed from the calculation, the results look more like this: rightwing bloc: about 50-53 mandates, leftwing bloc: about 42-45 mandates.

Sasley is correct in recognizing the “greater concern” of the religious parties, but he misses the most consistent element in their political behavior. While it’s true that “coalition governments have been composed of all sorts of parties along all kinds of spectrums,” since 1977, and especially since Peres’ maneuver in 1990, the religious parties agreed to take part in a left or centrist coalition only if the right bloc was denied a Knesset majority of 61 MKs or more. The only exception to this rule took place in 1999, due to the direct voting system which was in effect at the time. For their seats to be in play, the center-left bloc should reach the 60 mark, or if you wish, the right-Orthodox bloc should be denied it. It is a necessary condition – but not a sufficient one – for any alternative to Netanyahu’s coalition to materialize.

This pattern is one of the most consistent elements in Israeli politics, and is not likely to change, especially given the fragmentation in the center and the decision by Netanyahu last summer not to pursue a military draft reform. As for other speculations, such as a Kadima-Lieberman coalition, those are even less likely.

The degree to which voters will internalize this fact will affect their behavior – in both blocs – on the axis between ideological and strategic voting (and non-voting) patterns. I will discuss this issue further in the coming posts.

> Click here for 972’s poll tracker, with all the latest numbers for all Knesset parties. 

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    1. Will the government just ignore the High Court decision on conscription? Could that be a political plus in the polity? What I see afar of Israeli politics seems to be a focus on what will not be allowed to happen, rather than the construction of other paths. Not even Labor seems to be considering settler withdrawal. It is as though Israeli liberity is less action restricting the State than the State refusing restriction in the name of one version of Judaism.

      Reply to Comment
    2. XYZ

      THe Israeli Leftist media has joined the campaign…on Friday I heard the radio on Reshet Bet
      refer to the existing ruling coalition as “right-wing” and the opposition as “the Center-Left”.
      They are doing this presumably to scare off people who define themselves as “Centrist” from
      supporting the ruling coalition parties.
      Barak is hardly a “right-winger” and Olmert, who offered to give the Western Wall and Jewish sites
      in east Jerusalem to the Palestinians under the guise of “international control” is hardly taking
      a “centrist” position regarding concessions to the Palestinians, but rather it is “extreme Left”.
      I would define this coalition as “Center-Right” and the Opposition as “Left”. We will hear more
      propaganda of this sort from the Israeli media as the campaign progresses.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Kolumn9

      Look, thanks for the mention, but no, there are not two blocs here as described in the quoted article and in trying to create blocs on the basis of political behavior.

      There isn’t even a hypothetical anti-Bibi bloc of 42 seats even if we look at it from the point of view of political behavior. There is a left-wing bloc of Labor and Meretz. There are the Arab parties that wouldn’t support a Labor-based coalition. Then there are the mercenary parties who will sell out on the cheap to the highest bidder – Shas/UTJ and Yesh Atid. In fact these will sell out just to keep the other from the government so they are just downright dirty street whores when it comes to setting a price on their support. And finally there are the supposedly game-changing personalities like Olmert and Livni, who are significantly overrated in their ability to change the rules. This recent Olmert mania in the media is ridiculous. Here is a disgrace of a politician that is suddenly taken seriously for no particular reason except that the media and the left in general don’t take Shelly seriously as a contender for PM even though she seems to have done a perfectly decent job as a party boss. Frankly, I think that Shelly is building a base for the future and she is doing a good job of bringing the left back into the game. A few more security-oriented leaders, a few more social protest leaders, some outreach to the religious, the Russians and the Arabs and Labor could change the game. It is a shame that she doesn’t get the respect she deserves on the left.

      The comparison of blocs is misleading for the purposes of analysis. It isn’t even close to 50:42. It is closer to 50:24.

      The right is Likud+YB+NRP+NU. One can potentially argue that Yisrael Beiteinu is a mercenary party, and it is partially true given the right circumstance, but that party’s preference for a government is explicitly on the right and explicitly for Bibi. And yes, the NRP was once a centrist party, but it has been taken over by settlers and those ideologically supporting them and it looks like it is moving even further into that direction (I think the NRP is a potential future threat to the Likud’s seat total, though it wouldn’t change the bloc mathematics in the least).

      When it comes to political behavior all that a mercenary party needs to figure out is where it can get the highest price for its services with the caveat that the purchaser actually has the capacity of forming the government. With one bloc at 50 and the other at 24 seats, at this point it is entirely a no-brainer and will continue to be such until the left can get to within striking distance of forming a coalition – roughly 35 seats between Labor and Meretz with the right-bloc under 40 seats. That is a required swing of 11 MKs, which translates to getting roughly an additional 400,000-450,000 votes from somewhere (Russians, Mizrahim, religious, Arabs, people who don’t vote, people who fall for every mercenary party that shows up).

      It is theoretically possible for a force to rise in the center-right that can undo this math, but you need someone like Sharon to carry this out, and Sharon is in no condition to do so, and there are no personalities of similar stature on the right where such a party would need to arise.

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        You are quite right about the NRP becoming a possible threat to the LIkud in the future IF Naftali Bennett wins the chairmanship of the party in their primaries a couple of weeks from now. I met him and I was very impressed. He talked straight to the point, without the “Kishkushim” (nonsense-e.g saying things you know they don’t believe) and the phony emotional appeals we heard from the old NRP dinosaurs. He said explicitly that he views his job to help build a party that sometime in the next 20-30 years can become the ruling party of Israel because he believes that Israel will eventually have to adopt of values of Religious Zionism.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          The NRP is not my cup of tea, but yes, Bennett has the potential for appealing to a large public on the right. He is a very dangerous fanatic.

          Reply to Comment
          • XYZ

            Dangerous fanatic? How so? How is he different than other Religious Right-wingers? He certainly is more main-line than Moshe Feiglin is.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Different packaging, same product. I don’t believe in faith as a guide for policy or governance, hence the fanatic part of that comment. He is charismatic and has repackaged Religious Zionism for the wider masses which can attract a large following, hence the dangerous part. He is not main-line, but he is smart enough to mimic it. His annexation plan for area C is a mere prelude to a full annexation and permanent rule of the WB, with all the required changes to the Israeli political system to make it operate according to the ‘values of Religious Zionism’, because the values of democracy would no longer fit.

            Reply to Comment
          • XYZ

            I don’t accept what you are saying about the goals of Religious Zionism. Like I told Greck Pollock in another thread, mainline followers of Religious Zionism (and I include myself, and Bennett and everyone else I can think of who is involved in the political end of the RZ camp) accepts Israel being a secular democracy. I myself do not want a theocratic state, even though I am Orthodox/religious. I have studied enough about modern history of the US and Europe to understand there is no alternative to secular democracy. RZ’s policy is simply to give religious citizens the same rights as everyone else which was not always the case in Israel, but which is becoming more accepted. This means, for example, the Shabbat-observing citizens not be discriminated against in finding employment. At one time, there were practically no religous bus drivers for Egged, because they were expected to work on Shabbat. Today, there are religiously observant drivers.

            I think your fears about the goals of the RZ camp are exaggerated.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            I don’t accept your evasion.

            Everything you say is true. Most mainline RZs are educated, tolerant people who live in secular democracies like fish in water. I have absolutely nothing against the main thrust of the domestic agenda of the mainline RZs, including Bennett. I think it is almost entirely positive for all citizens of the state of Israel.

            The problem arises when dealing with the land and the people that are on it, and more specifically the need to separate from the Palestinians which inevitably means surrendering claims on some of the land. Here, I have yet to see anyone make a credible case that it is possible to keep all the land, keep the Jewish state (or a state of the Jews or any other formulation), and keep a secular democracy. One of those must give, and since RZs (like most other Israeli Jews) aren’t giving up the Jewish state, the choice comes down to either giving up land or secular democracy and I have a hard time seeing mainline RZs giving up Hebron.

            Fortunately (or unfortunately) this is not a choice that has to be made at the moment because the Palestinians are not ready for peace and status quo allows such decisions to be avoided. However, steps that involves the irreversible integration of the majority of the West Bank into Israel over time lead to a situation where no such decision ever needs to be made because separation would no longer even be an option (the goal for many on the right, and many RZs). However, given that there is a large hostile and indigestible population in the West Bank, they too would have to eventually be integrated into the Israeli political and legal system. Here the country would either give the Palestinians a second class citizenship or full citizenship. In the case of the former Israel would no longer be a democracy and it would have to be ruled under a different set of values with a questionable level of sustainability in the long-term. In the latter case, it would immediately become democratically ungovernable due to a lack of any national consensus (even if Arabs were only 40% of the population). At that point there are only two real options Either government would be taken over in a non-democratic coup by Jewish forces and ruled undemocratically under a different set of values (again with a questionable level of sustainability). Or, it would gradually turn into a state where the Jews are a minority (how do you prevent the 40% of the population from allowing the ‘return’ of other Arabs when all they need is the one-time connivance of only another 10.1% of the population, which translates to only 17% of the Jews?) and over time the Jews turn into a persecuted minority living in an Arab/Muslim country.

            So, when someone like Bennett talks about Israel adopting the ‘values of Religious Zionism’ what I hear are the values of being able to run a state where Jews rule undemocratically.

            Reply to Comment
          • AJM

            “In the case of the former Israel would no longer be a democracy and it would have to be ruled under a different set of values…”

            I think that we may have already passed this point. The colonization process in the West Bank advanced too far by 2000 for Israel to offer Palestinians a state that was close to viable. Rather than address the problem (rampant illegal colonization), Israeli leaders have resorted to propaganda, such as “…the Palestinians are not ready for peace…”

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            A state could have been born in 2000 and the Palestinians would have been better off in every possible way.

            There is no objective definition of what ‘viable’ means for a state and the Palestinian leadership never bother to explain what they mean. Is Somalia a viable state? Is Singapore? To me it seems to just be a term that is thrown around whenever the Palestinian leadership can’t accept what they are being offered because they have promised their population more than they could ever reasonably deliver.

            Reply to Comment
    4. XYZ

      Whether you or anyone else likes it or not, the ultimate arrangement that will apply to the West Bank will be an UNOFFICIAL condominium arrangement, i.e. joing Israeli-Palestinian control, perhaps with Jordanian participation. Israel will not annex the areas, the Palestinians will have autonomy, Israel will hopefully be able to draw down its security forces there, enabling the Palestinians free movement. This will be what emerges regardless of which goverment is in power in Israel, with or without Bennett.

      The influence of Religious Zionism will increase also, again whether you like it or not, because people coming out of its ranks are moving into important positions in all levels of society and government, including the IDF.

      People throughout the world, but particularly in the Muslim Middle East and also in Israel are creating a religious revival. The dominant secular, materialist, consumerist ideology that is pervading the world through the media, is proving to be a dead-end for society and people are looking for better, more permanent values. If I were a betting person, I would say that this will come to Christian Europe and North America eventually as well, although we are not seeing it yet there.

      Reply to Comment
      • Katamon

        I am presuming this was meant for me.

        Sure, what will emerge will be an unofficial modus vivendi. I just don’t believe it will be even remotely sustainable without granting the Palestinians at least the fiction of having a state and creating such a fiction would require some redrawing of the lines and some shifting of settlers. Bennett’s plan is to annex area C. Other RZs want to annex the entirety of the WB. Either of these steps would gradually undermine any ability to create any such modus vivendi because there would be no party on the other side to make even an unofficial deal with. Without this, there is no ‘condominium’. It would just be the IDF responsible for dealing with each town/city in the West Bank one at a time. This is not sustainable and this is the direction that Bennett among others want to push the country.

        Reply to Comment