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Saturday, April 17, 2021

The Last Week: A Short Guide to Israel’s Coming Elections

Shmuel Rosneris an Israeli columnist, editor, and researcher. He is a contributing opinion writer for the International New York Times and is the political editor of the Jewish Journal.

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Shmuel Rosner
Shmuel Rosneris an Israeli columnist, editor, and researcher. He is a contributing opinion writer for the International New York Times and is the political editor of the Jewish Journal.

Next Tuesday is rapidly coming, and with it, Israel’s fourth election in two years. Here are the five things to look at and remember as you prepare — anxiously or indifferently — for this crucial day of voting.

  1. Are there 61 seats for Netanyahu?

Forming an Israeli coalition is an exhausting exercise, but the basic rules are simple: 61 seats are needed for a coalition to form. Thus, the main thing all analysts and politicians will be looking for when the exit polls are publicized (next Tuesday at 10 pm Israel time) is whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has the potential for a 61-seat coalition.

To have it, he will need Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism, Religious Zionism and Yamina to have a combined 61 or more seats. If this happens, the prospects for Netanyahu to have a coalition are good. Another option for Netanyahu — although not as convenient — is for these parties to get close to 61 (say, 59) and for the Islamist party Raam to cross the electoral threshold. In such a case, Netanyahu could potentially form a minority government with Raam supporting it from the outside (in exchange for political goodies).

  1. What does Bennett want?

If Netanyahu has 61 seats, his main challenge will be luring Yamina into his coalition. The pressure on Yamina’s leader, Naftali Bennett, will grow, but the young(er) leader will not be an easy customer.

Bennett is sold on the idea that he is the kingmaker of this election. As the head of the only party that did not commit to a Netanyahu camp or to a never-Netanyahu camp, he can theoretically attempt to get the highest possible reward for his newfound power — becoming prime minister. Can he? The number of seats he is forecasted to have — maybe a little more than ten — suggests no. But seats are not a legal barrier to being the PM, so Bennett can say it is either PM or nothing.

But Netanyahu has already said no to Bennett becoming PM. So, Bennett’s dilemma could be as follows: go with Bibi as defense minister or maybe as a deputy PM, or go with his rivals and be the PM (That is, if they agree to let him be the PM. If they do not agree to such a proposition, his cards will suddenly seem less valuable). Most analysts agree that since Bennett believes the future to be on the right side of the political spectrum, he will probably go with Netanyahu after all.

  1. Who crosses the threshold?

The most important factor in the calculus of winners and losers next week is the electoral threshold of 3.25%. At least four parties are close to the threshold — leftist Meretz, centrist Blue and White, Islamist Raam and rightist Religious Zionism. The Labor party is also not far from the red zone. So, on the night of the election, we might be in a situation in which a number of parties are too close to call, with 15 to 25 seats on the line (out of 120). Even one of these parties can make the difference between victory and defeat.

The most important factor next week is the electoral threshold.

This situating is a fascinating test of political psychology. Voters must choose whether to go with their first choice — which could go underwater — or vote for a safer party. Put another way, Meretz voters who insist on Meretz could discover that because of them, Netanyahu kept his seat. And Religious Zionism voters could discover that because of them, Netanyahu lost his seat.

  1. What can the opposition do?

Those who do not want Netanyahu to keep his seat — representing a majority of Israeli voters but not necessarily of Knesset seats — must patiently wait for the numbers. If Netanyahu and Bennett can form a 61-member coalition, they can make Bennett an offer (being PM) and see what happens, but not much more than that. If Netanyahu and Bennett cannot form a 61-member coalition, they must still find a way to form a coalition from a variety of parties that aren’t a good fit. For example, Bennett would not sit with Meretz; Israel Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman would not sit with Haredi parties; New Hope’s Gideon Saar would not sit with the Joint List.

Basically, according to current polls, there are two main options for a coalition without Netanyahu. One is a coalition based around Bennett, Lapid and Saar, with the addition of Blue and White, Israel Beiteinu and Labor. Another one is a coalition of Bennett and Saar, with the addition of the two Haredi parties and Lapid.

Why is the second coalition problematic? Because it is not at all clear that the Haredi parties will be willing to join (and ditch Likud and Netanyahu). Why is the first coalition problematic? Because both Bennett and Saar vowed to be a part of a right-tilting coalition, and in a coalition with Lapid, Lieberman, Gantz and Labor, such a claim would be unconvincing.

  1. So, what is the forecast?

It’s a very close call.

The electoral threshold makes it complicated, the relative exhaustion of the voters makes it complicated and coronavirus makes it complicated.

We don’t know. We must be patient.

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