How Benny Gantz Can Win the Vote but Still Lose the Israeli Election to Netanyahu

Everybody loves a close race, and it’s neck and neck between the leaders of Kahol Lavan and Likud. But Israel also has a ‘popular vote’ and, like Hillary Clinton in 2016, one can win yet not still come out on top

Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz saluting the crowd during an election campaign rally in Tel Aviv, April 7, 2019.
Moti Milrod

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Everybody loves a horse race. And so the world is focused on whether Israel’s former army chief, Benny Gantz — the novice politician heading Kahol Lavan, a party that didn’t exist a few months ago — will beat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tuesday’s election.

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The race is neck and neck. It is illegal to publish poll results in the final three days of the Israeli election campaign, in order to encourage the public to vote ideologically, not strategically. The most-cited poll in the last round published Friday showed Gantz and Netanyahu each with 28 seats. Others showed Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party in the lead by as much as four or five seats.

It is undeniable that the man who comes out ahead, particularly if their lead is a significant one, will be seen as scoring a major political victory. Gantz will be viewed as a dragon slayer for besting a four-term prime minister. Should Likud come out on top, Netanyahu — looming criminal indictments and all — will be hailed for setting himself up for a fifth term, which would make him the country’s longest-serving leader.

But amid the drama of two strong men fighting to the finish, it must never be forgotten that in Israel’s political system, the one-on-one contest is secondary when it comes to determining who will be the next premier.

In fact, one of the possible scenarios is that Gantz achieves a decisively higher vote count than Netanyahu yet still fails to claim the premiership.

The battle that really matters doesn’t actually take place at the polls. After the votes are counted, each elected party must recommend to the country’s president, Reuven Rivlin, which party leader they choose to have the first chance of putting together a ruling coalition. They are allowed to recommend any party, including their own.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a tour of the Hatikva market in south Tel Aviv, April 2, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

The leader of the party with the best chance of assembling a majority coalition — at least 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats — then gets tapped by the president and, if they succeed, become prime minister.  

In order to emerge on top, an Israeli politician must not only show skill on the campaign trail; they must be a master dealmaker as well. It is likely that nearly every party with a chance of making it into the Knesset has already held closed-door conversations with at least one, if not both, of the leading candidates as to who they will recommend to the president.

Based on the polling and Netanyahu’s history of “locking down” support from the right-wing and religious factions even before the elections, it would require a stunning upset at the polls — or the discovery that all of the polling has been hopelessly off base — for Gantz to be able to win on the battleground that counts.

All of the late polls have suggested results that give Netanyahu a far higher likelihood of building a majority bloc from right-wing religious parties than Gantz’s center-left. The big question at this late stage is how many of those small parties will pass the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent and gain Knesset representation.

While the Israeli system of choosing its leader is technically far different to that of the United States, the sense of bitterness and missed opportunity of Israeli voters whose candidate wins the “popular vote” but still loses the election is similar.

There is, on an emotional level, a similar frustration to that of members of the Democratic Party who supported Al Gore in 2000 or Hillary Clinton in 2016.

How do we know? It has happened before in Israel, just a decade ago. In 2009, Tzipi Livni, as head of Kadima, won more seats than Netanyahu’s Likud, edging him out in the one-on-one horse race with 28 seats to 27. But she was unable to convince enough parties to form a governing coalition under her leadership. She may have won the election, but she lost the more important coalition-building competition.

After speaking to all of the parties, then-President Shimon Peres concluded that Netanyahu was better placed to assemble a stable government, so he got the nod. Netanyahu eventually assembled a coalition of 74 lawmakers from six different parties.

You only need to look at where Livni is today — retired from politics after failing to forge an alliance ahead of this election — and where Netanyahu stands to know which contest really matters.