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What the polls say about Netanyahu’s election chances

Netanyahu has more paths to the Prime Minister’s Office than Herzog, but also more party leaders who oppose him personally.

Seventy-one days ahead of Israel’s general elections, two major stories are dominating the political news cycle: the showdown between Shas’s former leaders – Aryeh Deri and Eli Yishai – and the corruption affair involving senior politicians from Avigdor Liberman’s Israel Beitenu party. Both Shas and Liberman lost some ground in last week’s polls, while Yishai’s newly formed party is coming close to passing the Knesset threashold, currently at 4 seats (3.25 percent of the votes).

Netanyahu’s Likud party held its primaries last Wednesday. Likud members chose an uninspiring team that didn’t include new stars, but also didn’t damage the party’s brand and might have increased its appeal in the political center. Two of Likud’s most extreme politicians, Tzipi Hotovely and Moshe Feiglin – were considerably demoted, and will probably not make it to the next Knesset.

These elections are mostly about Netanyahu anyway, more than any other issue or person. With that in mind, Bibi came out slightly stronger from last week, following the failure of his opponents in the Likud primaries and his success in blocking the Palestinian move at the UN Netanyahu’s appeal to the public has to do with an ability to hold on to the status quo at a relatively low cost. A successful Palestinian bid would have angered Israelis but also demonstrated the dead-end Netanyahu’s strategy has reached, thus increasing the appeal of challengers from right and left alike. Given the Palestinian failure, Israelis can go on ignoring the the issue altogether. That is good news for Bibi.

At the same time, Netanyahu is entering this campaign in a relatively weak position, and no poll I’ve seen gives him the absolute majority that would secure his fourth term as prime minister. Instead, we are facing a more complex picture, in which a lot will depend on the political maneuvering taking place after the polls close. The bottom line is this: Netanyahu has more paths to a coalition of 61 MKs than Labor’s Isaac Herzog, but not a lot more. However, even if Herzog does manage to form a government, it won’t be a lefty one (like the Rabin government in 1992) but rather a centrist coalition, more closely resembling the one led by Ehud Olmert.

Netanyahu (Yotam Ronen / Activestills)

Netanyahu. Will depend on Liberman and the Orthodox parties (Yotam Ronen / Activestills)

After the election, President Rivlin will need to give the opportunity to form a government to the Knesset member with the best chances of succeeding (and not, as some people think, the head of the biggest party). In order to determine the identity of this person, Rivlin will consult with members of all parties, who will recommend a certain candidate (much of the horse-trading takes place during the recommendation process). Once Rivlin makes his choice, the MK he nominates will be given 45 days to form a government.

Averaged, the polls show the following numbers: Likud 23, Labor  23, Jewish Home 16, a united Arab party 11, Moshe Kahlon 9, Yair Lapid 9, Meretz 7, United Torah Judaism 7, Avigdor Liberman 6, Shas 5, and Eli Yishai 3. (The numbers don’t add up to 120 because this is an average of other polls).

[Note that Eli Yishai’s 3 seats won’t get him past the Knesset threshold, but I included him here because this number reflects some polls in which he scores 4-5 seats, and some in which he fails to enter the Knesset and gets none. A lot will depend on the fate of his party.]

When figuring out who is more likely to receive the first opportunity to form a coalition, it’s useful to think of blocs of parties. We have 41 Knesset members who will almost certainly recommend on Herzog (Labor, Meretz and the Palestinian parties); and 39 MKs who will certainly go for Netanyahu (Likud and Jewish Home).

We can also add Lapid to Herzog’s side – the former made clear that he won’t again sit in a Netanyahu government. United Torah Judaism and Eli Yishai are more likely to go to Bibi. Now the blocs split 50:49 in Herzog’s favor.

Three parties remain in the middle – Kahlon, Shas and Leiberman. They are the likely kingmakers. It’s enough for two of them to join one side, Bibi or Herzog, for this bloc to go over 61 and receive the first opportunity to form a government.

Netanyahu has a better chance of securing those votes. Kahlon and Leiberman, both of them former Likud members, have personal issues with Bibi, but their politics are closer to the Right. It’s not really clear with either of them whether they are trying to increase their bargaining chips with attacks on Bibi, or if they really made up their minds not to support him again. I guess the more the numbers end up in Bibi’s favor, the more solvable their problems with him will seem.

For Herzog, things might be very tricky: Shas will have a problem sitting in the same government with Lapid, though a solution might be found on this front. And Meretz might have a problem with Liberman (and vice verse). Another complication is that a coalition with Liberman might not receive the support of the Palestinian parties – not even from the outside. In other words, the center-left bloc is not really a bloc, and Herzog will need to negotiate a complex puzzle, while Bibi’s work will be much simpler.

Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog announce a joint slate for the upcoming elections, December 10, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog announce a joint slate for the upcoming elections, December 10, 2014. The center-left bloc is more fragmented and less ideologically consistent than the right (Photo by Activestills.org)

A slight shift in the map to the right or to the left might change everything. If for example, the Left plus Lapid and Kahlon get to 61 seats (they have 59 now), they take the veto power from Liberman and the ultra-Orthodox. In such a case, Herzog will almost certainly become prime minister, in rotation with either Livni or Kahlon. Bibi has reason to be concerned: there is a slight trend of voters moving from the Right to the center and from the center to the Left. Alternatively, a strong performance by Yishai and the collapse of Shas would bring Bibi his victory.

There are also wilder scenarios: The leader of a centrist party – Kahlon? – might demand to become prime minister himself, either alone or in rotation, if he is convinced that it’s impossible to form a government without him. This is probably what Liberman had in mind when he decided to support heading to new elections, but if the election results are similar to the current polls, Liberman won’t have much to negotiate with. Here is something else to look at: A swing of four seats from Likud to the Jewish Home can make Bennett the leader of the bigger party on the Right. If the Right forms the next government, he could demand to share the prime minister office with Bibi, or in case Netanyahu resigns after the elections, with the person replacing him.

Finally, the complexities I’ve outlined here will make it very difficult to form a stable government — especially if it’s not a right-wing one (because the center-left bloc is not as ideologically coherent as the Right). This means that the ability of the next prime minister to engage in major reforms will be very limited to begin with, regardless of his agenda.

Related
Israel’s elections: A referendum on Netanyahu
Security Council’s election message to Israelis: Keep ignoring the occupation
Pundits’ consensus: Netanyahu is vulnerable

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    COMMENTS

    1. Weiss

      The FACT that Rivlin will “choose ” who will be the next PM and give permission to form another non-majority coalition through secret back door deals lays bare the fallacy of Israeli democracy.

      There are NO direct elections… period.

      And yet ANOTHER reason I am Ashamed to be Jewsih.

      Reply to Comment
      • Phil Fumble

        What are some of the other reasons?

        This was asked before but not answered,

        Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn4

        How does one form a non-majority coalition of a majority of Knesset members? Are you thinking this through at all?

        Reply to Comment
      • JeffB

        What Noam is describing is just a typical parliamentary system with multi-parties. I live in a winner take all system and in that sort of system the back door deals between factions are made prior to the election but they are still made.

        You have N opinions and only one set of laws. The way the N gets reduced to one is by talking and horse trading. Democracy is just how you pick the horse traders.

        Reply to Comment
    2. mt noise

      What would Israeli politics look like if the Knesset was divided into district seats like the British parliament instead of voting for a party ticket?

      Reply to Comment
      • Philos

        As someone who has enjoyed the bitter fruits of both systems the answer to that hypothetical question is: not much better, possibly worse.

        A British government, once elected, cannot be unseated (it is essentially an elected dictatorship of five-years), rules by simple majoritarianism (quite literally one more vote than the opposition to rip to pieces the so-called ‘constitution’ or popular institutions like the health service or go to war), and the only thing that seems to curtail its ever burgeoning and authoritarian powers from election to election are the European Courts of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

        Frankly, there is very little to recommend the British system. It is designed to be as undemocratic as possible whilst retaining some bare-bones elements of democracy.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ginger Eis

          1. In a democratic State based on the Rule of Law, the authority of the majority is limited by legal and institutional means so that the rights of individuals and minorities are respected. This is the case in Israel, Germany, The Netherlands, Japan, the UK, the United States, etc. and nothing in your rants demonstrates otherwise. In fact, the democratic systems in both Israel and the UK meet all the essential characteristics of your textbook Constitutional Democracy: for example (a) people are the ultimate source of the authority of the Government which derives its right to govern from their consent (popular sovereignty); (b) although “the majority rules,” the fundamental rights of individuals in the minority are protected (majority rule and minority rights); (c) the powers of Government are limited by law and a written or unwritten constitution (limited government); (d) Powers of Government are separated among different agencies or branches of the Government such as the Legislature, the Executive, and the Judiciary, (Trias Politica); (e) Different agencies or branches of Government have adequate power to check the powers of other branches (checks and balances); (f) Individual rights to life, liberty, and property and other Human Rights are protected by the guarantee of due process of law (due process of law); etc.
          3. The ECHR may adjudicate only cases involving violations of human rights specifically mentioned in the European Convention On Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. This Court does not have the powers “to curtail” the “ever burgeoning and authoritarian powers” of the UK Government (whatever the heck that is) as you falsely claim!
          4. The UK neither has a written “Constitution” nor has the UK Government any powers to “rip to pieces” the unwritten Constitution of the UK – as you falsely claim!

          Get your facts straight and quit ranting and rambling, Philos!

          Reply to Comment
        • Ginger Eis

          1. In a democratic State based on the Rule of Law, the authority of the majority is limited by legal and institutional means so that the rights of individuals and minorities are respected. This is the in Israel, Germany, The Netherlands, Japan, the UK, the United States, etc. and nothing in your rants demonstrates otherwise. In fact, the democratic systems in both Israel and the UK meet all the essential characteristics of any Constitutional Democracy: for example (a) people are the ultimate source of the authority of the government which derives its right to govern from their consent (popular sovereignty); (b) although “the majority rules,” the fundamental rights of individuals in the minority are protected (majority rule and minority rights); (c) the powers of Government are limited by law and a written or unwritten constitution (limited government); (d) Powers of Government are separated among different agencies or branches of the Government such as the Legislative, the Executive, and the Judiciary, (Trias Politica); (e) Different agencies or branches of Government have adequate power to check the powers of other branches (checks and balances); (f) Individual rights to life, liberty, and property and other Human Rights are protected by the guarantee of due process of law (due process of law); etc.
          2. The ECHR may only adjudicate cases involving violations of human rights specifically mentioned in the European Convention On Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. This Court does not have the powers “to curtail” the “ever burgeoning and authoritarian powers” of the UK Government (whatever the heck that is) as you falsely claim!

          Get your facts straight and quit ranting and rambling, Philos!

          Reply to Comment
          • Ginger Eis

            Correction

            ‘This is the CASE in Israel, Germany, The Netherlands…..” was meant (apologies).

            Reply to Comment
          • Bryan

            There are actually huge fundamental differences between the British and Israeli systems – (1) the British army is probably the best in the world but is under strict civilian control so cannot dominate political life (no British PM has ever served as chief-of staff, though Churchill was trained at Sandhurst before he decided journalism and then politics was more useful) though that does not of course mean that politicians do not engage in war for selfish or sectarian ends (e.g Thatcher and Falklands, Blair and Iraq) but even so Britain does not wage a war before every election. (2) British politics is based on a two party system (or a very limited number) rather than every general or journalist creating his own party as a means to his own aggrandizement. (3) British politics is primarily based on ideological issues that resonate with the population so that three major parties (Labour, Conservative and Liberals) have dominated political life for a century or much more, rather than mickey mouse parties springing up (based on the brief appeal of a tribal leader) and then merging or disappearing or suffering their leader jumping ship to whatever is the flavour of the moment. (4) The British system therefore delivers a level of stability, where coalition governments are a rarity (or where they occur reasonably long-lasting) so that long-term policies are feasible. (5) Britain has therefore been able to address some of its major issues (e.g a retreat from colonialism, a resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict) whereas Israel has utterly failed to address equivalent issues because of ever-shifting factiounal coalitions that have meant that the pacific desires of a majority of the electorate have been frustrated by politicians who can only maintain the status quo.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Anthony

      Weiss – I think your comment misunderstands how parliamentary democracies work: It’s fine for the President to pick who gets to form a government as the President’s choice must then get a coalition of 61 elected MKs together to support that government. If the President picks someone that is not a a popular choice among MKs then the other parties can prevent that person putting together a majority.
      It is in fact usual in a parliamentary democracy for the Head of State to “pick” the prime minister like this – including in the UK, where it is the Queen who does so.
      (If you want to disparage Israel’s democracy you would do better to point out that 4 million Palestinians are unable to vote in these elections and yet almost every aspect of their lives is currently controlled by the Israeli government.)

      Reply to Comment
      • Bryan

        The Queen has a theoretical but not an actual freedom to choose a Prime Minister. On only two occasions since the second world war has there not been a clear majority party (Feb. 1974 and 2010) – in both cases the Queen invited the leader with the most MPs to attempt to form a coalition, and there would have been national outrage had any other route been taken. The royal powers are substantially ceremonial – or else we will erect our guillotines in Trafalgar Square. You are however entirely correct about 4 million disenfranchised Palestinians.

        Reply to Comment
        • Anthony

          Bryan – you are right about the Queen’s role, but the context is slightly different. Under the UK’s majoritarian electoral system, there is usually an “obvious” winner – i.e. only one party that could realistically form a majority.
          Israeli election results don’t always provide an obvious answer – for instance if the leader of the second largest party has obvious coalition partners. In that case it would be reasonable for the President to call on the lead candidate of a particular parliamentary block, even if that person does not actually lead the largest party.

          Reply to Comment
    4. Ben Zakkai

      Keeping in mind that our greatest hope for a better future in Israel and Palestine is that the Government of Israel will continue to do ever more embarrassing and awful things as the rest of the world gets more and more disgusted and angry until it eventually intervenes forcefully enough to make positive changes here, I see the upcoming elections as a potential win-win-win, whichever way they may go: If Netanyahu wins then so does the ever-deteriorating status quo; if Bennett wins it’s even better because the world will be appalled by this high-tech religious fanatic chipmunk who states clearly that he has no problem killing Arabs because they’re just a royal pain in his tuchus and anyway why do they think they should have any rights in a Jewish Imperium?; and if Herzog wins it could be best of all, because he’ll lie down with dogs for the sake of being Prime Minister and then demonstrate that Israel’s Occupation is not solely or even mainly attributable to those Evil Right-Wing Settlers, because, in fact, building and expanding settlements on Palestinian land while ruling Palestinians brutally and oppressively through military dictatorship is the broad consensus Israeli policy and has been for almost 50 years. Thank you.

      Reply to Comment
    5. mcohen

      which reality .perhaps the alternative

      gaza destroyed and evacuated
      temple mount destroyed and evacuated
      ramallah burnt to the ground and evacuated
      tent cities in the sinai.

      Reply to Comment
      • Brian

        I don’t think anyone’s kidding themselves here. They know Bennett’s Long Term Plan is covertly titled Plan Dalet for the 21st Century.

        Reply to Comment
        • Just beginning Mr. Pappe’s “Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” Brian.

          Reply to Comment