Seven Post-election Scenarios: What Could Happen After Israel Votes?

Will the polls hold, which party could surprise, who will be wiped out and will Bibi or Bougie get the nod from President Rivlin to form the next government?

Olivier Fitoussi

The poll blackout since Friday evening means that for the last four days of the Israeli election polls, aside from rumors regarding the parties' own internal polling, we have little indication of the final and crucial voting trends. In the absence of information, we can only go on the current polls, which – perhaps unsurprisingly – are pretty uniform and on the kind of known unknowns that we can try to foresee based on previous elections.

As the voting ends at 10 P.M. on Tuesday, the three main television channels will broadcast their exit-polls. These are usually quite accurate, and are swiftly updated with results coming in from districts which have finished their count. The picture may be quite clear by midnight; but if the gap between the two largest parties (Likud and Zionist Union) is close, and if any of the smaller parties are hovering around the electoral threshold, it may take a couple of days before the soldiers’ votes are in before we know for certain. And then of course, there will be long weeks of meetings at the president's residence and coalition horse-trading.

With all that taken into account, here are the main scenarios and sub-plots which could play out from Tuesday night onwards.

Scenario 1: The polls hold – Kahlon goes with Netanyahu

Nearly all the polls released on Thursday and Friday had Likud trailing Zionist Union by four seats. However, despite being in the lead, Isaac Herzog’s list hasn’t made that big a breakthrough, receiving at the most 26 seats. Neither has Benjamin Netanyahu suffered a complete meltdown and in most of the polls, the bloc of right-wing and religious parties expected to support a Likud government is slightly larger than the center-left bloc which will probably nominate Herzog.

With such an outcome, Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu, currently polling at around ten seats, will hold the balance. The hopeful scenario in Netanyahu's circle is that Kahlon hasn't abandoned his Likudnik roots, and after exacting a hefty price from Netanyahu (the finance ministry for starters) he will recommend him to the president.

Scenario 2: The polls hold - Herzog forms a government

The major flaw in the previous scenario is Kahlon's evident antipathy and distrust towards Netanyahu. While he has remained opaque throughout the campaign, there is ample evidence that he has not changed his opinion of his old boss and will be happy to bring him down and serve in a Herzog cabinet. Kahlon's recommendation will deny Netanyahu the top job, but Herzog will still have to find a creative way to build a coalition that will have to include both ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, and Yesh Atid to command a Knesset majority.

At present, that seems impossible, with the rabbis saying they will never sit with Yair Lapid in the same government, but once the election is over, all bets are off and if anyone can create that unlikely coalition, Herzog, the soft-spoken lawyer and grandson of a chief rabbi is the man.

Scenario 3: The polls hold – National Unity government

Instead of choosing between another Netanyahu government and burning his bridges with his old Likud friends, Kahlon could well choose the middle path and urge both party leaders to form a national unity coalition which will include the two big parties, Kulanu and the Haredim. He will find President Reuven Rivlin a willing partner for such a construction. Netanyahu has repeatedly ruled out such an outcome during the campaign but once the prospect of opposition and quite likely political demise is staring him in the face, he is likely to come around.

Herzog, as well, may realize that sharing with Netanyahu is the only way to boost his lackluster image and appear a national leader. The main sticking point of course will be who gets to be prime minister. Rotation between the two party leaders, as Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir agreed upon in 1984 (with the encouragement of Herzog's father, then the president) is the likely solution. But even if they agree to split the term between them, who goes first?

Scenario 4: Polling upset – Collapse in Likud vote

In every election over the last two decades, there has been a last-minute surge of previously undecided voters, worth at least six seats for one of the parties, that the pollsters failed to detect in advance. In 2013, the beneficiary of the Election Day surprise was Yesh Atid, which catapulted way beyond expectations to second place with nineteen seats.

Who will reap those late-deciders on Tuesday? There are a number of possible scenarios. Many believe it could be Kahlon who is still seen as the dark horse in this election. If the current pattern of former Likud voters opting this time for Kulanu deepens, a late surge for Kahlon would almost certainly come at Netanyahu's expense, widening the gap between Likud and Zionist Union and making it much easier for Herzog to claim he has a mandate. Forming a coalition would still take some maneuvering, but at least Netanyahu, as leader of a party with less than twenty seats, would be out of the picture.

Scenario 5: Polling upset – Netanyahu closes the gap

Likud has been in slow but steady decline in the polls for two months now, but a sudden reversal of Netanyahu's fortunes as the last-minute election surprise is not an unrealistic scenario. There are a lot of Likudniks out there who could change their minds, particularly in Naftali Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi which in 2013 jumped to twelve seats, largely at Likud's expense. While Bennett will only sit in a right-wing government, the urgent message has been going out to his voters that if the gap between Likud and Zionist Union isn't closed, there won't be such a government.

Anecdotal evidence so far indicates that the message is effective. Four seats worth of voters going back to Likud from Habayit Hayehudi could be enough to close the gap. The Israeli left and much of the media has been euphoric in recent days over the prospect of saying farewell to Netanyahu. Erasing the gap would shatter them and Netanyahu should have a clear path to forming a coalition if he achieves near-parity with Herzog.

Scenario 6: Polling upset – Small party wipeout

Three parties are currently hovering perilously close to the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent of the vote. Nearly all the polls have Meretz, Yahad and Yisrael Beitenu crossing over into the next Knesset but the margin of error leaves room for doubt, especially with the prospect of a higher than average turnout due to an expected rise in the Arab sector. If any of the three are wiped out, it could have implications on the overall picture. A new Knesset without Meretz would leave Herzog's Zionist Union the sole remnant in what was once the largest political camp of the Zionist left (even Labor doesn't call itself left any longer).

Even with a largish advantage over Likud, Herzog would find it impossible to build a majority without Meretz and the best he could hope for would be a national-unity government. On the right, losing either Yisrael Beitenu or Yahad would be less of a blow to Netanyahu. He has other parties supporting him. He would even be happy if Avigdor Lieberman's party was wiped out as he the two have fallen out and Lieberman has refused to endorse him as prime minister. Neither would Yahad failing to cross the threshold be fatal as at least one of its members, the Kahanist Baruch Merzel, will never be a member of his coalition.

But what if two of the parties fail? Without Yahad and Yisrael Beitenu, the center-left bloc would probably be bigger for the first time since 1992, decisively denying Netanyahu a fourth term. If Meretz and one of the right-wing parties are obliterated and if all three are wiped out, it will change the electoral calculus but Herzog will still probably be the worse off.

Scenario 7 - Deadlock

Next week, once the final and official results are in, consultations with begin with the president. Whoever Rivlin believes has the best chance will receive the mandate to form a coalition in four weeks, with a possible extension of another two if necessary. Whether Herzog or Netanyahu get the nod, it will almost certainly be a protracted and grinding process which will ruin the Pesach and Independence Day holidays for political journalists and a small group of lawyers will accumulate a nice pile of future favors owed.

What if the selected candidate fails? Netanyahu may hold a majority on paper but have exhausted his potential partners trust and goodwill. Herzog could lead by a significant gap but still fail in bridging the chasm between Haredim and Lapid. If the first choice fails, then another politician will get a chance for four more weeks. If that doesn't work, the mandate is passed to the newly elected Knesset where for three weeks any member can present a majority.

Even the most deadlocked elections have eventually yielded a government, but the obstacles this time around may prove insurmountable. If the process is exhausted, then 90 days after the final deadline, another election is held. Back to the polls by September? An unbearable thought but a not implausible scenario.