Analysis

The Only Real Question Still Looming Over Israel's Repeat Election

It doesn't matter whether Israelis changed their minds since they last had to cast their votes in April. There is one issue that can still tip the scales on Tuesday

A worker hangs a massive election campaign billboard that shows Kahol Lavan party leader Benny Gantz, in Tel Aviv, Israel, September 9, 2019
Oded Balilty,AP

As the sun set on Friday and Shabbat entered, the final stage of Israel's general election campaign began. During this phase the media can no longer publish polls until Election Day, but that doesn’t mean polling has ceased. The parties will continue commissioning their own internal polls, frantically trying to work out where they need to put their resources on Tuesday. For the rest of us, the lull in the numbers will be a welcome respite. 

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As it is, the polls in this bizarre second election of 2019 have been pretty boring. For most of the past three and a half months since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forced the newly-elected Knesset to dissolve itself, they haven’t shifted. The essential dynamics have remained unchanged, which can mean two things: Israelis have barely changed their minds this time around, or the pollsters are getting something badly wrong.

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To try and get a better idea of what the actual situation is, the only choice is to look at the best poll of them all, the only poll that matters – the actual election. And that doesn’t mean waiting impatiently until Tuesday night. The sole advantage of having a do-over election is that we have April's election results, just five months-old, to refer to. The baseline for any prediction of September 17 is April 9.

How many Israelis have changed their minds in this short time? Probably not many. Israeli voters, like voters everywhere, are tribal and don’t change their positions that often. It’s the parties which change and out of the nine or ten parties expected to cross the electoral threshold, only four have retained exactly the same framework.

So what changes can we expect, and how will that affect the general outcome?

Let's start with the two largest slates running in the election. Kahol Lavan, surprisingly, is perhaps one of the parties that didn't change anything. It’s still the unwieldy duopoly of Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, in addition to the dysfunctional merger of three center-right parties which won 35 Knesset seats in April. Likud, which also gained 35, has in the meantime devoured the Kulanu party with its four seats, which should give Netanyahu's party 39 seats, compared to 35 for Kahol Lavan. But the polls have so far shown that Kulanu’s seats have vaporized and that both parties are still neck and neck, at a polling average of 32 seats.

What are the chances of either of them clawing back the lost seats? The polls ahead of the April 9 election underrated both Likud and Kahol Lavan’s actual results and there is a good chance that this is the case this time around as well. As the moment of truth draws close, voters who were toying with the idea of voting for a smaller party that offers a more ideological option tend to be drawn back to one of the big parties. At this point, the big parties' better organizations usually come into play and maximize their base of support. No one should be surprised if the Likud-Kahol Lavan duel ends almost identically as it did five months ago, tied at 35-35 seats.

The one caveat here is Kulanu's four seats. It’s hard to see those all going to Likud. Most of Kulanu voters are either centrists or right-wingers who are fed up with Netanyahu, which is why they voted for Moshe Kahlon, an ex-Likud minister who left the party in a huff. Most of them won’t go back to Netanyahu along with Kahlon. Where will they end up? Probably with Yisrael Beitenu or Kahol Lavan. And there may be those who will give Gantz’s party, which in April received only 15 thousand votes less than Likud, a small advantage this time.

Another party which has not made any changes is Yisrael Beitenu. The five seats it won in April were the crucial ones Netanyahu needed for his majority and failed to get. All the polls conducted since the Knesset voted to disband itself show that Yisrael Beitenu is doubling its strength, and if this forecast materializes, Netanyahu would almost certainly not have a majority again. Now, the true question is: Where are those new seats coming from? If the votes are indeed mainly coming from former Kulanu electorate, they are coming at the expense of the coalition, which means a big headache for Netanyahu. But what if they’re coming from the center, at the expense of Kahol Lavan and the smaller center-left parties? That is one of the most crucial questions of the election. Netanyahu needed just one more seat for his elusive majority. Losing seats to Lieberman widens the gap he has to bridge. The votes needed to overcome that gap will come from the far-right.

Netanyahu's coalition has a stash of votes that were squandered in the April election, wasted by the two far-right parties that failed to pass the electoral threshold — Hayamin Hehadash and Zehut.

With Zehut out of the race and its leader Moshe Feiglin given the vague promise of a ministerial position from Netanyahu in his next government, and Hayamin Hehadash reuniting with Habayit Hayehudi under the hard-right alliance Yamina, most of those votes should be back in the fold. But will they be enough to make up for what the coalition seems to have lost to Yisrael Beitenu?

And will the coalition lose votes again should Otzma Yehudit — running now on its own, unlike in April when it was part of the Union of Right-Wing Parties — fail to pass the electoral threshold? And what if the racist Kahanists manage to enter the Knesset? Will those seats add to the coalition’s tally or come mainly at the expense of other right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties?

At this point, the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, with their faithful voters shuffling into the polling stations at the rabbis’ orders, are the only parties Netanyahu can totally rely on to repeat their April result of eight seats each. He can even pin some hope on either of them adding to their score, thanks to their guaranteed high voter turnout.

The biggest question mark for the opposition is whether the two much depleted center-left parties, Labor-Gesher and Democratic Union, can improve on their dismal performance in April. At this point, the best Labor can probably hope for is to keep the six seats it has, and not slip down even further closer to the electoral threshold. Democratic Union is still hoping to improve on their lowly four seats Meretz received in April, thanks to a host of additional political stars that are now part of its ranks such as Stav Shaffir, Ehud Barak, Yair Golan and others.

Labor-Gesher and Democratic Union are actually facing another and more serious threat: The moves by Kahol Lavan, which is making a shameless play for center-left voters by using the shoddy argument that what matters is their emerging the largest party on September 17. This, of course, is not true. Even if Kahol Lavan manages to maintain a margin of several seats over Likud, it will be meaningless if Labor-Gesher or Democratic Union slip under the threshold. With their votes gone to waste, the chances of Netanyahu's coalition reaching the magic number of 61 seats are greatly enhanced.

Just like in every election, the opposition gazes in forlorn hope at the Arab vote. And this time, at least in comparison to April, there are grounds for hope that Arab voters would bring in at least a seat or two. The Arab parties are running together again, under the Arab-majority Joint List, and the Arab turnout will probably be a bit higher than the lowly 49 percent of April, which was enough for only ten seats split between two rival slates. This time around, one unified slate is likely to win eleven or 12 seats, though the record Arab turnout that gave them thirteen in 2015 is unlikely.

The issue of voter turnout, however, is the one thing that neither the actual results of April 9 nor the polls of the last three months can predict. And without a precedent for a second election within six months, the biggest question on Tuesday may not be how many Israelis have changed their minds since April's election. Rather, the question is how many are motivated enough to go and vote again. Or in the case of Arab voters, how many more will vote on Tuesday?