February 22, 2020

Israel’s Election Handbook: A Guide for Tuesday

Illustration of a ballot box at a polling station in Tel Aviv, as Israelis all over the country cast their votes for the 20th parliament in the Israeli general elections, on March 17, 2015. Photo by Danielle Shitrit/FLASH90

On the eve of Israel’s second election this year, against the backdrop of issues with Iran, Syria and Gaza, and a conversation-changing vow by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to annex the Jordan Valley (if elected), political tactics and electoral calculations take center stage. Here’s a short guide of what to expect before, during and after election day, Sept. 17.

Polls: By law, the last polls are published on the weekend before election day. Take these polls with a grain of salt: At least 1 in 5 Israelis make up their minds on election day. Earlier this week, a poll found that only 53% of voters had decided who to vote for. 

Campaign: In the final three days, when the public sees no new polls (but politicians continue to poll), the two largest parties, Likud and Blue and White, will work hard to convince voters that the only way to keep the hope alive for their bloc is to vote for them. Their rationale: The one who gets more votes gets the mandate to form a coalition. So it is Netanyahu vs. Benny Gantz. 

Voters: The public is tired of politicking and elections. If the low-energy campaign doesn’t become a high-energy, last-minute campaign, expect a relatively low turnout.

Turnout: Arab turnout is key because it was low in the April election. Likud turnout is key — because Likud voters seem more tired than others and less prone to vote. They are also among the least certain of who they’ll vote for. You can trust only one camp to vote as usual: Charedi voters score above 70% certainty (Likud, 46%; Blue and White, 56%).

Tuesday Night
Exit polls: There are three main things to watch for on election night: 1. Will the pro-Netanyahu camp get more than 61 seats? 2. Which of the two main parties gets more seats? 3. Which of the two main contenders is likely to have more members of Knesset (MKs) support him? 

Results:  Be patient because this election could be determined by a few hundred votes. (In fact, that’s what happened in April. Had the New Right gotten a few hundred more votes, Netanyahu could have formed a governing coalition.) As votes are counted, be aware that every change could be crucial, especially if the change makes or breaks a party that crosses or fails to cross the electoral threshold (watch Labor and Otzma Yehudit, the one in danger and the one that’s hopeful). 

Wednesday Morning
Scenario 1: Likud, Yamina, United Torah Judaism, Shas and, possibly, Otzma Yehudit have 61 seats or more. Game over. Netanyahu has a coalition, and the only question remaining is the price the public must pay for it. 

Scenario 2: Because Likud is the largest party, and/or because more new MKs want Netanyahu to remain prime minister (as opposed to Gantz), and/or because of other reasons, President Reuven Rivlin hands Netanyahu the mandate to form the next coalition. As this scenario plays out, there are three main options:

Netanyahu persuades Avigdor Lieberman to join him for a very high reward. Example: Lieberman will be prime minister in the fourth year of the coalition. Game over.

Netanyahu persuades Gantz and Blue and White to join a unity government under him. Game over.

Netanyahu fails to form a coalition. After 28 days, either Gantz gets the mandate or someone else from Likud steps in to challenge Netanyahu and form a Likud-led coalition without him.

Scenario 3: Because Likud is the largest party, and/or because more new MKs want Netanyahu to remain prime minister (as opposed to Gantz), and/or because of other reasons, Rivlin hands Gantz the mandate to form the next coalition. As this scenario plays out, there are three main possibilities:

Gantz persuades Likud to join a unity government. The key for him is to convince the members of Likud that Netanyahu’s time is over. For Netanyahu, joining a coalition under Gantz is not an option (he will have to resign if he is indicted). Game over. Netanyahu’s game over.

Gantz finds a way to persuade Charedi parties and anti-Charedi parties to sit together under him. No analyst believes such a scenario is likely. 

Gantz fails. Netanyahu gets the mandate. 

Trump plan: If the political situation calls for having a peace plan on the table — by way of assisting Netanyahu to assemble a unity government — it is likely that President Donald Trump finally will release his peace plan (theoretically, this could happen before October but the window is brief because Rosh Hashanah is only a week and a half after election day). 

Hearing: In early October, Netanyahu will face the attorney general and could face charges for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. By that time, Netanyahu hopes to know that his position is secure. 

If he remains prime minister, he plans to make sure that no trial prevents him from doing his job (either by getting immunity from the Knesset or by going to court while serving as prime minster, as the law currently permits).

Government: If there is no government, Israelis will have to consider the possibility of an unfathomable third election.

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

Shmuel’s book, #IsraeliJudaism, Portrait of a Cultural Revolution, is now available in English. The Jewish Review of Books called it “important, accessible new study”. Haaretz called it “impressively broad survey”. Order it here: amzn.to/2lDntvh