August 19, 2019

Dissecting Israel’s Next Election

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett (R) and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, from the Jewish Home party, enter the room before delivering their statements in Tel Aviv, Israel December 29, 2018. REUTERS/Corinna Kern

Israelis are in uncharted waters. The country faces an election less than half a year after the previous election. Israelis must endure a second election campaign during the summer. Earlier this week, President Donald Trump called the situation “messed up,” and because there is no greater expert on messed-up elections, we must believe that he is right. 

The basic reason for what happened in Israel last week is as mundane as it is technical. Had the right wing had one more seat to spare — just one — a coalition would have been formed. Had the New Right party had a couple of hundred more votes — moving it across the electoral threshold — there’d be no problem. Had the right not insisted on dividing its votes across a wide spectrum of small parties, it would now rule. 

But the right wasn’t wise and was also somewhat unlucky. A clear majority of voters failed to produce a clear enough electoral victory. Thus, the result of the next election depends on two basic questions: Is anyone likely to change his or her mind and switch sides? Will the right be smart enough not to repeat its mistakes?

The first question is important and misleading because observers often get confused as they follow the ups and downs of different parties. So it’s important to remember that the fate of parties is of little consequence in the great scheme of things. What counts is the fate of blocs. And what this means for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition at this stage is quite simple: whether he can get the support of 61 members of Knesset without having to rely on the unreliable support of Avigdor Lieberman and his party. That why Israel’s Election Handbook — a feature posted twice a week on the Journal website detailing the intricacies of Israel’s elections — includes a two-part graph: the right wing including Lieberman, and the right wing excluding Lieberman. 

“When there are many parties, the risk of losing votes grows.”

The second question, about the right’s wisdom, is the one on everyone’s mind at this early stage of the summer campaign. The goal of the right is clear: to have few parties competing for votes on the right. The fewer the better. When there are few parties, votes aren’t wasted. When there are many parties, the risk of losing votes grows. But having fewer parties isn’t easy. For one, because voters are spoiled and want to have the exact flavor, and not an approximation of it, as they buy their cone of political ice cream. And, of course, there is the issue of personal ambitions. 

Here is an example: Ayelet Shaked is used to being an important minister. She doesn’t want to give that up. But she has a problem. Her party, the New Right, lost in the last election. The party she abandoned as she formed the New Right, the Jewish Home, already has new leadership. The party she aspires to join, Likud, seems uninterested. Shaked is stuck. On the one hand, polls paint her as the most popular minister in the outgoing government (she was justice minister). On the other hand, she has no party. That is, unless she establishes her own party, whether it’s the failed New Right (for a second run with her partner, Naftali Bennett) or any other party. Only in such a case, she would be undermining the camp of which she is a part, by splintering it again. 

So we have ego on one side and political realism on the other. We have particular tastes on one side and the need for large umbrellas on the other. Israel’s situation hasn’t changed since the last election, the agenda of voters didn’t change much, the complexities and challenges are the same, and similarly, so are the beliefs and tendencies of the voters. Still, one thing must change for the next election to provide a definitive result compared with the previous election: As a collective, the right needs to get smarter. Can it? Will it? 

Likud is not taking in Shaked — that’s a sign that the right did not learn its lesson. Bennett is planning on running again. Another sign. The Jewish Home is reluctant to make room for its previous leaders. This is an understandable position, but also a sign. Hopefully, in a few weeks this process will end positively for the right. Because if not, what we have in store is not a victory for the left. It is another show of political paralysis.

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