The definition of insanity is asking the same question three times in less than a year and expecting a different answer. Or, in other words, welcome to Israeli democracy.
If the polls are to be believed, the chances of Israel’s voters delivering a dramatically different result Monday night to the ones they gave five and a half months or 11 month ago are low. But despite the low probability of any major change over such a short time, every election exists in its own right and we’ll soon have a brand-new, 23rd, Knesset – and with it perhaps new governing coalition permutations.
Bibi went gunning for his only real rival
Here are five possible outcomes (in no order of feasibility) for the election.
Scenario 1: Netanyahu majority
If every single one of the elements in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s full-court press on the electorate works, he could still win this election and the four parties in his coalition (Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina) can gain the 61 seats needed to enjoy a majority. Four things need to occur for this to happen: A major return home by Likudniks who voted for either Kahol Lavan or Yisrael Beiteinu (or didn’t vote) in September; the micro-constituencies Netanyahu has courted with unrealistic promises in recent weeks – like Ethiopian Israelis, weed smokers and cabdrivers – come out overwhelmingly for Likud; supporters of Otzma Yehudit, which won’t cross the electoral threshold, switch to a coalition party that will; and the Arab Israeli turnout is lower than expected. It’s not an entirely unrealistic scenario, and there are signs that at least some of these things could happen. But even the most optimistic polls suggest Netanyahu is still two or three seats short of a majority.
The day after: Netanyahu forms a small, tight-knit coalition that purges the legal establishment, passes a law granting him immunity from prosecution and bypasses the High Court of Justice.
Scenario 2: Stalemate, Likud advantage
Most of the polls over the past week indicate that Likud has gained minor momentum, with a seat or two shifting from Kahol Lavan and Yisrael Beiteinu to it, and another seat shifting within the coalition bloc from Yamina to Likud. Kahol Lavan also seems to have lost a seat within the opposition bloc to Labor-Gesher-Meretz. But this won’t be enough to break the political deadlock. Likud will emerge as the largest party, with a seat or two more than Kahol Lavan. But Netanyahu will still lack at least two or three seats for a majority. Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz won’t have a clear path to government either.
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Probability: Most likely
The day after: Stalemate, but Netanyahu will have regained ground and claim that as the leader of the largest party, he must continue as prime minister at least for a few more months. Gantz will find it very difficult to renege on his repeated promise not to serve under a prime minister facing indictment, especially with Netanyahu’s trial set to start on March 17. But the pressure on the Kahol Lavan leader to compromise in order to prevent a fourth election and form a stable government while Israel and the world may be facing a global coronavirus crisis, along with an economic downturn, will be almost unbearable.
Scenario 3: Stalemate, Kahol Lavan advantage
Most of the polls conducted over the last five months are a mirror image of the September election result, with Netanyahu short of a majority and Kahol Lavan the largest party. Some of last week’s polls indicated a small swing toward Likud, but they were hardly conclusive and the pendulum may well have already swung back in Kahol Lavan’s favor, allowing it to remain the largest party in the next Knesset as well. But an identical result to September – which would be a great outcome for Kahol Lavan – still won’t be enough to make Gantz prime minister, as he remains committed to not forming a government with the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties.
The day after: Netanyahu will initially stick to his guns, just as he did after the September result. But as leader of the largest party, Gantz cannot allow him to remain in office – even just for a few months. But as pressure mounts to avoid a fourth election, it will be Netanyahu’s allies pushing him to make concessions and agree to step aside so a national unity government can be formed.
Scenario 4: ‘Jewish majority’
Gantz’s best-case scenario – which his number two Yair Lapid inelegantly called the “Jewish majority,” before correcting himself – is an outcome whereby Kahol Lavan, Labor-Gesher-Meretz and Yisrael Beiteinu gain more seats in total than the four parties of Netanyahu’s coalition. In such a case, Gantz believes he could become prime minister of a minority government as the Joint List abstains on the vote of confidence in the Knesset. For this to happen, there will need to be both a surge of former Likud voters shifting to either Kahol Lavan or Yisrael Beiteinu, and also some Arab voters voting for Labor-Gesher-Meretz or Kahol Lavan instead of the Joint List. The polls have not detected either development. In September, the “Jewish” opposition parties won 52 seats to the Netanyahu bloc’s 55. This is a not-insurmountable gap of only three seats, but in the most recent polls that gap had grown to around 57-49 in Netanyahu’s favor (with the Joint List winning 14 seats).
Probability: Extremely unlikely
The day after: The main question facing a minority Gantz government is whether the Joint List would indeed agree to abstain in the confirmatory vote and whether Yisrael Beiteinu and the more right-wing elements in Kahol Lavan would serve in a government dependent on the Joint List’s goodwill. But we are extremely unlikely to even reach the point where such a government could be an option anyway.
Scenario 5: Blocking bloc
Netanyahu’s worst-case scenario is one where the three parties of the center left (Kahol Lavan, though it could fairly be described as center right; Labor-Gesher-Meretz; and the Joint List) together win 61 seats, creating the “blocking bloc” that the center-left hasn’t held since 2006. In September, it was four seats away with a total of 57 seats. In most of the polls in recent weeks, this total has shrunk by a seat or two. But a surge in the turnout of the Arab vote, coupled with a depressed right-wing turnout, are both within the realms of feasibility. And if either of them are large enough, a blocking bloc could still emerge on Monday night.
Probability: Very unlikely
The day after: Netanyahu won’t have a coalition of any kind under this scenario, but Gantz will still find it very difficult – if not impossible – to form one with the Joint List. His hand, however, will be much stronger in coalition negotiations with Yisrael Beiteinu and one of Netanyahu’s allies in this unlikely case. Gantz may even be able to get Likud to join a national unity government under his leadership.