Analysis

Netanyahu vs. Gantz 2019: Six Scenarios for How the Israeli Election Will Play Out

Whatever happens on Tuesday's election, Gantz and Netanyahu might be secretly planning for a national-unity government

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks through the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on April 8, 2019, a day ahead of the election.
AFP

The opinion polls, like the Israeli public, are split right down the middle. Half the surveys conducted last week, before Friday’s cutoff, put Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan slightly in the lead. The other half had Likud with a similar-sized advantage. It’s a dead heat between the two largest parties.

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But on one thing the polls were in consensus: The bloc of right-wing and religious parties had a small majority over the center-left opposition. Small, but not that steady, as it’s a majority based on seven parties that are all pretty close to the 3.25-percent electoral threshold. So nothing is certain and the polls are questionable anyway. The following are the six likeliest scenarios for the results that we’ll start hearing as the polls close at 10 P.M. Tuesday night.

Scenario One: The polls are right

If Likud and Kahol Lavan receive more or less the same number of seats but the right-wing and religious parties have a small majority, we can expect both Benjamin Netanyahu and Gantz to proclaim victory in the wee hours Wednesday. But it will be Bibi who has the chance to form a coalition.

Kahol Lavan co-chairman Benny Gantz gives a final speech before the polls open the next day, Israel, April 8, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

It won’t necessarily be easy, because it will mean Netanyahu needs to make a separate deal with each of the seven other parties in his coalition, each of which can bring down his government and hold him to ransom at any point. This is when Netanyahu will start to think he may be better off building a grand coalition with Gantz instead.

Scenario Two: A right-wing surge for Netanyahu

If Netanyahu’s gevalt! campaign works and right-wing voters believe he’s in danger and move from the smaller parties to Likud, Netanyahu is in the best situation, from his perspective: a larger Likud, the biggest party in the Knesset, with a sizable margin over Kahol Lavan and a choice of minnows with which to form a coalition. And they won’t have the power to bring him down unless they act together. This is what he has been trying to create with his panic attack in the last four days.

But what if the gevalt is too successful and the surge of right-wingers to Likud becomes a tidal wave?

Scenario Three: A surge for Netanyahu and a right-wing-party wipeout

Likud supporter load a poster of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into a van, Modi'in, Israel, April 8, 2019.
\ Gil Cohen-Magen

If too many right-wing voters abandon the smaller parties they were planning to vote for and go over to Likud, Netanyahu will be the leader of the largest party in the Knesset, but he may not have a coalition. The number of small parties that are pushed beneath the electoral threshold could change the balance between the blocs.

Netanyahu believes he’s not cannibalizing his coalition partners, just trimming some of their excess fat. But what happens if he kills some of them in the process? If just one coalition party falls beneath the threshold, says Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, Bibi’s coalition will still probably have a majority.

But what happens if Likud’s surge also drowns Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu and Naftali Bennett’s Hayamin Hehadash? If three coalition parties fall beneath the threshold, the center-left will have a majority and Netanyahu will have lost his coalition. No matter how big Likud is.

Scenario Four: A soft-right shift to Gantz

Since the start of the campaign, it has been clear that Gantz’s only path to victory is winning over a large number of “soft-right” voters from parties in the current governing coalition. At one point, at the end of February and in early March, this seemed to be happening: The opposition parties had a tiny majority in the polls for a few days. But the coalition swiftly bounced back and reestablished its small but steady majority.

But what if more of those soft right-wingers have indeed moved to Gantz and, undetected by the pollsters, are remaining with him? They could be this election’s true game changer. In sufficient numbers, they could deny the Netanyahu coalition its majority. Gantz still won’t win automatically, as he won’t be forming a government with the Arab parties and will need to find partners currently in the coalition.

Scenario Five: A left-wing surge for Gantz

Kahol Lavan is running its own gevalt campaign, not as panic-struck as Netanyahu’s, but Gantz’s party is still trying to entice left-wing voters, mainly from Labor, with promises that Kahol Lavan is only “a meter away from victory” and replacing Netanyahu. If it succeeds, Kahol Lavan may end up larger than Likud by even five or six seats. But on its own, it won’t change the balance between the two blocs.

However, a sizable lead for Kahol Lavan, making it unquestionably the largest party, will have an effect. It may give at least some of the right-wing and religious-party leaders the excuse to stick it to Netanyahu after he tried to steal their voters, even though they already promised to support his coalition. And even if Netanyahu succeeds in keeping them on board for a while, Gantz will have an opportunity to form a coalition and become prime minister later on this Knesset term, should Netanyahu lose control for any reason.

Scenario Six: A surge for Gantz and a left-wing-party wipeout

While fewer parties on the left are vulnerable to the electoral threshold than those in the coalition, it’s still a vulnerability on both sides. A surge to Kahol Lavan could conceivably push Meretz below the threshold. Balad-United Arab List is also near the threshold and could be a victim of low turnout in the Arab community. If either of these parties fall out of the next Knesset, it doesn’t matter whether Likud or Kahol Lavan are larger, the center-left bloc will simply have no chance to win enough seats to block Netanyahu’s next coalition. It’s game over for Gantz.

Some of these scenarios can happen in combination and either cancel each other out or ensure a victory to either side. Netanyahu’s dream scenario is a combination of scenarios two and six. For Gantz, scenarios three, four and five would work very well together.

They could also lead to a post-election deadlock, like the one in 1984 between Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir and Labor’s Shimon Peres. In such a scenario this time, neither Netanyahu nor Gantz would be able to build a coalition and would be forced to sit together in a national-unity government. That may well be the scenario both of them are secretly planning for.