Four Myths About the Israeli Elections

Don't believe the polls or what reporters say - in Israel, elections don't work like in other countries.

The Good Old Days: Lapid and Netanyahu during the previous government.
Emil Salman

Let the reader beware: For the next three to four months, much of Israeli news coverage will be devoted to elections. Here are some tips for filtering out the fluff:

It's not all personal: Within hours of Monday's meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, some of our most experienced political correspondents described the coalition break-up as the irresponsible result of personal distrust and loathing. For reporters who spend their days listening to politicians complain about each other, it's easy to fall into the narrative of politics as consisting entirely of egotism and intrigue. But it's a distorted picture.

The qualifications for going into politics do include a desire for power and a high opinion of oneself. But few people become politicians unless they also have strong beliefs about what to do with power. To get votes or join a coalition, they may bend those beliefs – but only so far. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni really is committed to a two-state solution, Netanyahu is truly dedicated to blocking Palestinian statehood, and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett does actually want to annex most of the West Bank. Lapid is no leftist, but has scruples that wouldn't allow him to say "aye" to Netanyahu's nation-state bill.

Personal animosity didn't doom the government. The outcome of the last election did, by making a coalition with shared goals impossible. Reporting that portrays politics as entirely personal isn't merely misleading; it's damaging, because it convinces many voters that "they're all the same."

Polls aren't prophecies: Opinion surveys at the start of a campaign mean less than odds given by a bookie, but a smart bookie wouldn't give odds yet. We don't know which existing parties will make alliances or split, which new ones will enter the race, or which ex-generals will be added to their tickets. Early in the race the incumbent always looks most prime ministerial, but this advantage gradually evaporates.

Even late in the campaign, Israeli polls are inherently unreliable. The sample size is often small. Pollsters have a hard time reaching new voters in the army. "Undecided" often means someone is still choosing between three left-wing parties or two right-wing ones. So fewer votes are in play between the blocs than it appears. In 2013, polls did show the trend of Netanyahu losing altitude – but none forecast the extent of the drop.

Using pollsters' past performance to identify their tilt, as statistician Nate Silver did in the 2012 U.S. election, is harder here. Different parties are running and the election rules constantly change. In 2013, a party needed 2 percent of the total vote to enter the Knesset. This year the threshold was raised to 3.25 percent.

Supposedly, eliminating small parties makes the political system more stable. That's a fairy tale. A higher threshold helps large parties but makes the system less representative. An extreme example: In Turkey, nearly half the votes in 2002 went to parties that failed to pass the country's 10 percent threshold. Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party won just a third the votes – but two-thirds of parliament.

Pollsters can't be sure how many people will vote for unsuccessful parties, and how many will switch to a larger one at the last moment. With a higher threshold, uncertainty rises.

None of the above: In any country, some people want to vote "none of the above," especially when they're convinced that the other choices are equally bad.

In a two-party system, the way to cast a "none" vote is to stay home. In Israel, a new or previously marginal party often gets the "none" vote. In 1992 it was Tzomet. Shinui managed to be "none of the above" in 1999 and again in 2003. In 2006, it was the Pensioners of Israel Party and in 2013 Yesh Atid. This year, Moshe Kahlon's as-yet-nameless party looks poised to fill the slot, but the season is young.

A Nobody Party's best friends are reporters who ask too little about its positions and talk too much about its list of fresh – that is, devoid of experience and any proven political skill – candidates. Those difficult-to-poll new voters particularly like the Nobodies. Polls influence the race: When numbers for the Nobody Party rise above the electoral threshold, support climbs even higher, because voters aren't afraid of wasting their vote. The morning after the election, Nobody wants cabinet portfolios.

The mythical trend: Particularly in the foreign media, the myth took hold during the last campaign that Israel's electorate was moving inexorably rightward. That perception continues to color coverage.

If you pay attention to data, the 2013 returns refuted the myth. Likud and the right as a whole shrank; the left grew. Netanyahu won reelection, but just barely, and was forced into a coalition that he despised and that lasted only a year and a half.

In Israeli politics, the only certain trends are uncertainty and volatility. The smart reporter, and the smart voter, will ask hard questions about the parties' policy proposals, will treat poll numbers skeptically, and treat the race as wide open.

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of The Unmaking of Israel and The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977. Follow him on Twitter: @GershomG.