The Known Knowns, Known Unknowns and Unknown Unknowns That Could Decide Israel's Election

Netanyahu's risky last-minute 'oy gevalt' campaign could drive Likud satellites below the threshold — and doom his chances of re-election

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A laborer works in front of electoral campaign posters featuring Kahol Lavan's leaders and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv, April 3, 2019.
A laborer works in front of electoral campaign posters featuring Kahol Lavan's leaders and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv, April 3, 2019.Credit: AFP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

First, to cite Donald Rumsfeld, are the known knowns

Benjamin Netanyahu is slated to win Tuesday’s election. The reasons are varied, but the most crucial are:

1. His ideological and political bloc sits on a solid right-wing majority.

2. He is the consummate political strategist and campaigner, arguably the canniest and most talented in Israeli history.

Then there are the known unknowns, and they are plenty: 

1. To what extent has Netanyahu succeeded in neutralizing the negative effects of the myriad indictments, allegations and suspicions swirling around him? The polls indicate that Netanyahu’s alleged corruption has had only a marginal influence on voter preferences, but no one knows for sure. Netanyahu’s aura of corruption could still emerge as a “sleeper” catalyst that will only kick in during the last few hours before the vote. 

2. Will Israeli Arabs vote in significantly smaller numbers than in previous elections, as current surveys indicate, or will they turn out in greater numbers than expected? If the first is true, there is a distinct possibility that one of the two Arab parties, Balad-United Arab List, won’t meet the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent: The center-left bloc will lose four potential Knesset seats and the already slim chances of beating Netanyahu will be close to nil.

3. The same fate could also befall the left-wing Meretz party, further compounding the center-left’s predicament. On the other hand — and the other hand is much bigger in this case — there are at least five right-wing parties that could theoretically fall prey to the threshold: Three that face a clear and present threat (Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s Hayamin Hehadash); another two that seem safe for now but could falter if the polls are only slightly inaccurate. These include Arye Dery’s Shas as well as Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut, a party that combines loony libertarians with the rabid right and has been crowned — perhaps prematurely — as the surprise Cinderella of the 2019 election.

If a party fails to pass the threshold, the votes it garnered are lost. These “surplus votes” are thus distributed evenly among the parties that did pass the threshold. In a worst-case scenario for Netanyahu, more than one right-wing party will fail to pass the threshold, their eight to 10 seats will be distributed equally between the two blocs and Netanyahu would lose his blocking majority.

Which also means that whatever initial results are announced on the basis of exit polls at 10 P.M. on Tuesday, the real outcome won’t be known until there is final word on the fate of parties teetering on the threshold. And that could take quite a while.

4. “Netanyahu hits the panic button” or “Netanyahu launches his ‘gevalt’ campaign were the two most common headlines that greeted the prime minister’s claim that Likud is about to lose the election if its voters don’t wake up from their lethargy. Netanyahu’s gambit is widely seen as a cynical last-minute ploy aimed at expanding his already assured majority — but it ain’t necessarily so.

According to various news reports and insider knowledge, the polls indicate that there is a significant “enthusiasm gap” between the two blocs: Left-wing voters are almost universally certain they’ll vote, but a sizeable chunk of declared Likud voters intend to stay home. If Netanyahu does not succeed in prodding them, his performance on Tuesday could fall well short of what the polls predict.

But his strategy entails serious risk: By sounding the alarm about a possible “leftist takeover,” Netanyahu may persuade not only hesitant Likud voters but also those who had intended to vote for its satellites. The greater his success, the bigger the chances that one of these satellites will fail to meet the threshold, with consequences as detailed above. 

Finally, there are the unknown unknowns

Last-minute security developments or media exposés, the existence or lack thereof of embarrassing “secret tapes” of either Netanyahu or Benny Gantz, or — as has been the case in many recent elections — a wave of popular sentiment of one kind or another that swings the election and is deemed obvious and inevitable, but only with the benefit of hindsight.

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