May 22, 2019

Deadline Is Near — Surprise Me!

One of the common myths about Israel’s last election (2015) is that the polls were way off. The people were expecting a win for Labor’s Yitzhak Herzog and ended up having Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. Indeed, the 30-seat-win for Likud was a surprise, as on average the surveys before the election predicted a 22-seat loss for Likud. But the polls’ great error is a myth. Their error was in predicting the exact number of seats for each party. But they were successful in predicting the more important number — the number of seats for each political bloc.

A few days before the last election, I looked at these polls, which some Israelis interpreted as optimistic for the left because of Labor’s advantage. I then wrote the following sentence: “The numbers don’t really add up for Netanyahu’s competitors. For them to form a coalition would require an electoral miracle.” Herzog was riding high, but the math was against him. It still is. Not against Herzog personally, but against the bloc of which he is a part.

Voters shop around in the neighborhood, they move from Likud to the Jewish Home or from Labor to Yesh Atid. But they rarely vote for a party that would risk their political bloc. For such a thing to happen, there needs to be a formidable figure like Ariel Sharon. For such a thing to happen, there needs to be a tiebreaking crisis.

Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), Avi Gabbay (Labor) and all other self-appointed candidates to replace Netanyahu are no Sharon. They can steal one another’s voters, but they have a hard time stealing the voters of the other bloc. That is, if you believe the polls. The latest polls predict that the current 67-member coalition will get 67 seats, 63 seats, 67 seats, 67 seats, 64 seats, 66 seats, 63 seats.

Israelis rarely vote for a party that would risk their political bloc.

True, this is not a huge advantage. But coalition building is a tricky art, in which one has to count not only the number of seats available for the likely coalition but also the number of seats available for an alternative coalition. Counting these, one realizes that all alternatives still put the Likud Party as a likely winner. It can re-form the current coalition or turn to form a coalition with some of the more centrist parties. Its rivals do not have this option. Not if the numbers resemble (they don’t need to be exact) the polls.

There is another myth, or a common cliché, that should be treated with suspicion. It’s the election-surprise myth: An election is like a road trip without a map, where you have a starting point but the end point is unknown. It is true for Americans, because all that is needed is a 2-3-point deviation in the polls and you get Donald Trump instead of Hillary Clinton. It is not true in Israel, where we build coalitions and need them to be somewhat stable to survive.

When did we have election surprises? It is quite rare. 1996 comes to mind, because of the notion that half a year after the Yitzhak Rabin assassination it was incumbent on voters to give the Labor Party its victory. But 1996, when Netanyahu first became prime minister, was an exception. It was the first of only three rounds of elections in which the prime minister was elected directly by the voters. It was personally Netanyahu vs. Shimon Peres, and not Likud vs. Labor as we have today. When you have a two-way personal race, the too-close-to-know surprise is a constant feature. When parties are elected, and blocs counted, there are few surprises: Netanyahu was likely to win in the last three rounds, Ehud Olmert was likely to win before him, Sharon was not a surprise in 2001, nor was Ehud Barak in 1999 (the last two were elected directly).

Of course, this does not mean that surprises can never occur. But they are quite rare, and seem to be even rarer today. This explains why this week we saw a Netanyahu who wants an early election in Israel — he could win and form a coalition. This explains why this week we saw his coalition partners working hard to sabotage his plans — come election, they will be the ones having to fight harder to not lose seats to one another. On Sunday, the crisis was mild; on Monday, it was raging; on Tuesday, it was a roller coaster. On Tuesday night, it seemed almost over.

Then the newspaper was put to bed. You want to call it election surprise? These are exactly the kinds of nasty surprises we writers must bear: Having to write about a crisis when the deadline is near.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israel and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at