March 18, 2019

Who’s Winning Israel’s Election?

Benny Gantz, head of Resilience party and Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid, hold a news conference to announce the formation of their joint party. Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

Israel’s election cycle is in its early stages. Parties formed; candidates have been approved; campaigns soon will begin. There is still a long way to go, from the possible indictment of Prime Minister Benjamin  Netanyahu and its aftermath, to the leaks concerning President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” with the Palestinians and how those leaks could impact candidates and voters. 

But some things are getting clearer. First, the Likud Party might not be the largest party on election day. In fact, judging by recent polls, it’s unlikely to be the largest party. Of course, this makes its claim on forming the next coalition trickier. The Likud Party will have to assemble a majority of elected Members of Knesset (MKs) supportive of Netanyahu as prime minister and prove to a not-quite-friendly president of Israel — the man whose one practical official role is to pick the winner of the election — that no other party can form a coalition. 

Will it be able to do such a thing? Let’s look at some numbers and explain what they mean (graphs and more coverage are available on the Journal’s online “election handbook”).

Kahol Lavan has an average of about 35 seats in the past eight polls. Likud has an average of about 30 seats in the same polls. But there’s one thing to remember: 30 seats for Likud means that the party is stable. It doesn’t lose voters, for now. Thirty-five seats for Kahol Lavan is also not such a big deal. The figure is just slightly higher than what the two parties that combined to make Kahol Lavan — Benny Gantz’s Resilience and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid — had before the merger. For example, a Feb. 21 poll found 13 seats for Yesh Atid and 19 for Resilience, a combined 32 seats. On Feb. 11, the tally was 20 for Gantz and 11 for Lapid. On Feb. 9, a combined 35 (23 and 12).

Another important number to take into account is the one combining all parties that could become a right-religious coalition such as the one that exists today. Here, a coalition that once numbered 67 would become smaller and more fragile, with a current average of 61 to 62 seats, enough to form a coalition (but a small one), in which every MK is king, as the majority depends on him or her.

“The Likud Party might not be the largest party on election day.”

So the right-wing religious coalition maintains a thin lead over the other camp — that is, the camp that wishes to unseat Netanyahu and form a different coalition. This lead is stable from the time new elections were announced in late December, but because this is a small lead, even slight erosion endangers the bloc. 

But there’s a complication: Just because the right-wing-religious coalition has only a small advantage doesn’t mean that the other bloc — call it “center-left” — can form a stable coalition. Many parties already committed not to join any coalition headed by someone other than Netanyahu; Arab parties don’t join coalitions; seating the far left together with center-right parties is going to be extremely difficult, and hardly sustainable. Hence, it is hard to see how Kahol Lavan could gather an over-60 coalition unless some of the parties that currently are counted as part of the Likud bloc decide to switch loyalties after election day. Or, as Lapid suggested earlier this week, the Likud party agrees to join a coalition headed by Gantz to form a unity government.

This is what right-wing parties fear. This is what they started fighting against in this week — warning the public that Netanyahu is going to form a coalition with Gantz. The excuse, or the reason for such a coalition, is obvious: the need of Israel’s government to accept the Trump deal. Right-wing parties might not be able to embrace the plan, and hence Netanyahu might have an incentive to move leftward and become the prime minister of peace negotiations (and this, some Israelis suspect, could also help him overcome his legal troubles).


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.