Israelis are returning to vote a week from today. The final result will almost certainly be the same as in last year’s two elections. The parties supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not have a majority in the 23rd Knesset, and the parties opposing him will not be able to create a coalition capable of winning the vote of confidence to approve the proposed government. Virtually every single election poll conducted in the past few months has confirmed this.
There is not one poll in which the four parties in Netanyahu’s potential coalition – Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina – have more than 58 seats, leaving them three seats short of the necessary Knesset majority.
Benny Gantz doesn’t need 61 seats to depose Netanyahu and become Israel’s new prime minister within weeks. Since Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party and the right-wing flank of his own Kahol Lavan party won’t sit in the same coalition as the Joint List, or even in a coalition supported by the Joint List from the outside, Gantz’s likeliest path to governing is if Kahol Lavan, the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance and Yisrael Beiteinu win more seats than Netanyahu’s bloc and the Joint List abstains on the vote of confidence (which the predominantly Arab alliance probably will do – even though Kahol Lavan politicians have taken to calling this option “the Jewish majority”).
Gantz’s problem is that he also lacks three seats to make this scenario a reality. The polling averages over the past month have the three parties of Gantz’s notional minority government totaling 51 seats, while Netanyahu’s four-party bloc is averaging 56 seats.
Last September, the number of votes needed per seat was 35,917; last April, it was 32,860. Assuming next week’s turnout will be similar to the last two elections (69.8 percent in September; 68.5 percent in April), three seats are worth about 100,000 votes – or about 2.3 percent of the total vote. On paper, that means Gantz’s path to victory is shorter than Netanyahu’s right now: The latter needs five extra seats, or about 160,000 votes, to make it to the necessary 61. But even Gantz’s task seems insurmountable.
Talk to the pollsters and they will tell you there is a reason the polls all show political deadlock: At the end of three election campaigns in the space of a year, there are very few floating voters left. Those who do exist are “undecided within the blocs” – deliberating between Kahol Lavan and Labor-Gesher-Meretz; or between Likud and Yamina. If there really are 100,000 voters floating between the Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu blocs, the pollsters haven’t detected them.
But polling is a science based on limited samples. There is something better than polls: actual elections.
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The problem with comparing Israeli election results is that between every election, parties split, merge or even change allegiances. Some parties can win significant chunks of votes, but those votes won’t be counted if they don’t cross the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent. But the comparisons can still be useful.
If we split the parties into three groups – those who would choose to be in a coalition with Netanyahu; those who would not be; and those in neither camp (the Arab parties) – we can see an interesting trend over the past three elections.
After the March 2015 election, there were seven right-wing or religious parties who could serve in a coalition with Netanyahu, and did (though Yisrael Beiteinu joined the coalition for only part of that term). These parties – including the far-right Yachad slate that didn’t pass the threshold – won 56.4 percent of the total vote. The four parties that wouldn’t be part of a Netanyahu coalition (including the pro-marijuana legalization Green Leaf) won only 32.5 percent. The four separate Arab parties, which ran together for the first time as the Joint List, won 10.6 percent.
In April 2019, the parties that had supported the Netanyahu coalition in the past (including two right-wing parties that failed to cross the threshold – Hayamin Hehadash and Zehut) won 55.4 percent of the total vote, one percentage point less than in 2015.
This may seem a tiny dip, but two things should be taken into account. First, the reservoir of “Jewish votes” in this election was larger, as the Joint List had split and the Arab parties ran in two separate slates that won a combined total of just 7.8 percent – almost 3 percentage points lower than in 2015.
Second, the demographics of Israel – with higher proportions of religious and right-leaning Israelis becoming eligible to vote – should have benefited the Netanyahu coalition. Parties that wouldn’t sit in a Netanyahu coalition (including Gesher, which failed to pass the electoral threshold) won 35.9 percent of the vote, up almost 3.5 percentage points from four years earlier.
Five months later, in the September 2019 election, the pendulum between the Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu blocs swung much further. The Likud coalition parties (including Otzma Yehudit, which didn’t pass the threshold) slumped by a further 9 percentage points, to 46.3 percent of the vote. The anti-Netanyahu parties bloc jumped by more than seven points to 42.1 percent and the Joint List, once again running on a united Arab slate, won 10.6 percent, identical to its 2015 result.
In other words, the “Jewish vote” – about 89 percent in both March 2015 and September 2019, and which split 56 to 32 percent in favor of Netanyahu-supporting parties in 2015 – is now far closer at 46 to 42 percent. And once the votes of Otzma Yehudit are taken out of the equation (since it didn’t cross the electoral threshold), the margin is down to 2.3 percentage points and almost tied.
This isn’t just a result of voters turning against Netanyahu. It has as much to do with Lieberman moving Yisrael Beiteinu from the pro-Netanyahu column to the “anti” one, and center- and right-wing parties being absorbed into larger ones (Kulanu and Zehut into Likud; Gesher into Labor).
But the result is the same: The Netanyahu bloc is only 2.3 percentage points bigger than the anti-Netanyahu bloc (not including the Joint List). That is only 100,000 voters – half of whom, if they switch sides, can give Gantz the necessary seats to form a minority coalition government.
This election will hinge on whether the swing away from pro-Netanyahu parties continues on March 2, even by just a couple of degrees that the pollsters haven’t detected – and then Gantz could eke out those last necessary votes. Or, as the pollsters currently predict, the momentum has been arrested and we’ll be facing another deadlock next week. The only options then would be a national unity government or a dreaded fourth election.
Finding the voters
Where can those 50,000 votes come from? Potentially only from Netanyahu’s own party (they won’t come from the ultra-Orthodox Shas or United Torah Judaism parties, or from far-right Otzma Yehudit. And while there seems to be a slight drift from Naftali Bennett’s religious-Zionist Yamina party, it amounts only to a few thousand votes.
Likud won 1,113,617 votes in September, down 26,753 from the 1,140,370 it received in April. But Likud’s loss was actually much greater, as between the two elections it had absorbed both Kulanu and Zehut, who collectively had received a total of 270,787 votes last spring. Kulanu did even better in 2015 with 315,360 votes – all of which have now evaporated elsewhere.
Five months ago, Likud lost 297,540 potentially pro-Netanyahu votes from the April election – mainly of former Kulanu supporters but also former Likudniks. These likely went mainly to Yisrael Beiteinu (which nearly doubled the number of its votes), the crossover party for right-wingers fed up with Netanyahu, and to Kahol Lavan (whose gains were offset by voters returning to Labor and Meretz, which is why Kahol Lavan only increased its vote by some 25,000), and others who stayed home.
The “soft-right” flank of the Likud camp – voters who are frustrated by Netanyahu’s alliance with ultra-Orthodox parties and do not support his campaign against the judiciary and law enforcement agencies – isn’t a myth. Lieberman and Gantz dipped deep into that well of voters last September. And if there are just 50,000 left there, they can still send Netanyahu packing next week.