July 18, 2019

Scenarios for Israel’s Election

Election campaign posters in Jerusalem; Photo by Ammar Awad/Reuters

In the days before election day on April 9, the first rule is humility. Don’t presume to know, because you don’t. Yes, the polls tell a story, revealing a slight advantage to the right-religious camp. But they tell other stories: More than 10 percent of the Israeli electorate hasn’t yet decided. Four to five parties might not get enough votes to cross the 3.25 percent electoral threshold. And besides, there are still days left in the campaign — days without public polling (Israel’s law does not allow the media to publish new polls in the three-day run-up to election day). A lot can happen in three days.

Still, here are the likely possibilities and the things to consider for next Tuesday, when Israelis go to the polls:

Does Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have an assured 61-seat majority? If the answer is yes, game over. The next coalition is still long and difficult weeks of negotiations away, but it is likely to be a repetition of the current coalition. 

How are those 61 seats counted? Likud plus the United Right, the New Right, the two Charedi parties (UTJ and Shas), Yisrael Beiteinu and Kulanu. If these parties have 61 seats, Netanyahu can comfortably move to form his coalition. If not, there is still Zehut to consider. The right wing-religious-libertarian party made no commitment to the prime minister, and its leader, Moshe Feiglin, is a true independent. If you count to 61 only by adding Feiglin to the mix, Netanyahu could be in trouble.

What if Netanyahu’s base fails to claim 61 seats? Here again we must ask: With or without Feiglin? But let’s assume Netanyahu doesn’t have a majority. Then we must ask: How many seats did Likud get compared with Kahol Lavan (Blue and White). If Likud is in the lead, Netanyahu is still likely to get a chance at forming the next coalition. If Blue and White has more seats, and Netanyahu doesn’t have a majority, the president has more leeway to ponder the options, and possibly allow Blue and White’s Benny Gantz to form a coalition.

What coalition can Netanyahu form? If his base accrues 61 seats (it’d be easier without Feiglin, but still possible despite Feiglin), Netanyahu has a coalition. If the base doesn’t get 61 seats, the prime minister is stuck. All other potential partners — namely Blue and White and Labor — are committed never to join him. 

Can Gantz form a coalition? Only if all parties become convinced that a Netanyahu coalition is impossible. If the parties face the option of either joining Gantz or holding a new election, some parties might calculate that Gantz is the better choice. It could be Kulanu, Yisrael Beiteinu, the Charedis or even the New Right. 

Another scenario that ends with a Gantz coalition: Likud loses badly, Netanyahu decides that he has no choice other than to quit, and a unity government — Blue-White-Likud — is formed.  

Will we get the answer on election day? Not necessarily. The electoral threshold is a wild card. Imagine a party that gets 3.24 percent of the vote, when the military vote not yet counted. Imagine that this party is Yisrael Beiteinu, without which Netanyahu doesn’t reach 61 seats. This is a reasonable scenario if voters put stock in the polls. If this happens, we’d have to wait for all votes to be counted carefully, maybe more than once, until a clear picture emerges of the most likely outcome. 

Are there wild cards other than the electoral threshold? Sure. Consider the possibility (I know, this is hard to envision) that some politicians aren’t telling the truth, or (also hard to envision) that some politicians might change their minds after election day. Example: Moshe Kahlon decides that it’s time for Netanyahu to go. Example: One of the Blue and White factions decides that its commitment not to join a Netanyahu coalition was merely election rhetoric. Example: President Reuven Rivlin finds an excuse to let Gantz form a coalition although he has no majority. 

All of these are unlikely, but possible. All of these are part of the post-election process. On the eve of election day, maybe that’s the most important thing to remember. Unlike what happens in the United States, in Israel, election day is not the end of a process, it’s the middle of a process. After the people have spoken, it is time for politicians to interpret the meaning of it.

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