Who Will Be Israel's Next Premier? Surprises to Expect Post-election Day

Who will disappear? Who will become kingmaker? And could someone other than Netanyahu or Herzog become Israel's next prime minister?

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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A vandalized campaign billboard advertising the Zionist Camp, in Baqa al-Garbiyyeh. March 10, 2015.
A vandalized campaign billboard advertising the Zionist Camp, in Baqa al-Garbiyyeh. March 10, 2015.Credit: AP
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Zionist Union will be the largest party in the next Knesset, barring a last-minute surprise when voters go to the polling stations in Israel on Tuesday.

Over the past 20 years, though, one party has always managed to surprise both the pollsters and the general public. Political analysts are speculating on the nature of this election’s surprise: Will an existing party disappear from the political map? Will one party significantly outperform the predictions and become the coalition kingmaker?

In the last election, it was Yesh Atid, whose 19 seats far surpassed pollsters’ predictions. These dramatic changes usually take place in the last few days before the election, when, by law, polls can no longer be published. This year’s final polls were published on Friday.

Three types of surprises are possible in the upcoming election. First, one party could significantly outperform the surveys.

In previous years, this electoral surprise has sometimes been a party that pollsters didn’t even expect to enter the Knesset. But this year, because of the higher electoral threshold (3.25 percent), that’s unlikely: A party must now win at least four of the 120 seats to enter the Knesset.

Second, an existing party could fail to pass the threshold. At different times, polls have shown both Yisrael Beiteinu and Meretz hovering dangerously close to this line.

Third, a dark-horse candidate could become prime minister instead of either incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu or his main challengers, Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni (who have agreed to rotate the premiership).

This could happen if, for instance, Yesh Atid does much better than expected, enabling its chairman, Yair Lapid, to form a more stable coalition than either Netanyahu or Herzog. However, this scenario is highly unlikely.

Following are just some of the surprises that could happen on Tuesday.

Firstly, Zionist Union. When the election campaign began last year, Herzog wasn’t considered a realistic candidate for prime minister. But since then, his party has strengthened steadily. Currently, polls still show him unable to form a narrow, left-wing government. However, a last-minute influx of votes from parties to Zionist Union’s right could change the picture significantly.

Another possible surprise is Likud, which has been losing ground as the campaign wore on. It could surprise in either direction – by a last-minute rally that would enable Netanyahu to form a narrow right-wing government, or by a continued loss of seats that would leave it trailing Zionist Union by far more than the four seats currently predicted.

The nightmare scenario for Likud is ending up with only 18 seats because many of its traditional supporters simply don’t bother to vote.

This is a scenario Netanyahu surely didn’t foresee when he called early elections last December.

Third is Yesh Atid, which is already doing much better in the polls than anyone predicted when the campaign began. The party’s fantasy is that it will enjoy another last-minute surge, like it did in 2013, form a post-election alliance with Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman and Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon, and then use that alliance to propel Lapid into the Prime Minister’s Office.

“Without Lapid, Lieberman and Kahlon, no other candidate can form the next government, so the other parties will have no choice but to join us,” a Yesh Atid MK explained.

Nevertheless, this scenario seems highly unlikely. In the last election, Yesh Atid was a brand-new party with no track record, and it was also virtually the only self-proclaimed centrist party. Moreover, Netanyahu was a shoo-in for reelection, so voters didn’t feel constrained to cast their ballot based on whom they wanted as prime minister.

None of those conditions hold today. This election’s new party on the bloc, Kulanu, is challenging Yesh Atid for the centrist vote, but voters wanting Herzog as prime minister are liable to migrate to Zionist Union in the coming days.

Another potential electoral surprise is the Joint List, comprised of three Arab parties plus the Arab-Jewish Hadash party. Forced to merge despite their very different political views by the threat that one or all might fail to pass the raised electoral threshold (it was previously 2 percent), the merger has ended up significantly boosting their electoral strength. Polls predict the Joint List to take 13 to 15 seats, more than the Arab parties have ever had before.

That strength isn’t likely to translate into key posts in government or as leader of the opposition, since Joint List candidates have said they aren’t interested in those positions. But it could grant them the chairmanships of important Knesset committees, such as the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee or even the Knesset Finance Committee.

Eli Yishai’s new Yahad party could also prove a big electoral surprise. Current polls show it garnering five seats. But a last-minute movement of voters to other parties could result in it failing to cross the electoral threshold, thereby wasting tens of thousands of right-wing votes and greatly increasing the likelihood that Herzog will be the next prime minister.

Finally, there’s Kulanu, which is hoping to be the Yesh Atid of this election. It has been gaining strength in recent days, mainly thanks to an influx of Likud voters disappointed in Netanyahu, and could end up significantly outperforming the poll predictions. Some of those voters might return to Likud at the last minute if they conclude that Herzog might otherwise be the next prime minister. Then again, other disappointed Netanyahu voters might make the move in the opposite direction, to Kulanu.

When the campaign began, Kahlon hoped that his party would win 15 seats. The polls so far have shown him receiving far fewer. Yet even if the polls prove correct, Kahlon is still expected to be the kingmaker in the next government. His decision on whom to support as the next prime minister could well tip the balance in favor of either Netanyahu or Herzog.

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