Opinion

These Are the Odds Netanyahu Will Lose in 2019

Benjamin Netanyahu is vulnerable. His desperation is showing of late, as is his weariness. It's not a good look for him. But what's the chance he'll lose on April 9?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a news conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil December 30, 2018.
\ HANDOUT/ REUTERS

Benjamin Netanyahu is vulnerable. He is slipping, at times curiously out of touch. His desperation is showing of late, as is his weariness. It's not a good look for him. But what are the odds that he'll lose this Election Day April 9?

DISCLAIMER: The following is in no way meant as an endorsement of or tool in the service of gambling for money or other items of value. It makes no claims to science.

RECOMMENDATION: Do not gamble on Israeli politics. Ever. Find some other more enjoyable, more charitable, healthier, or otherwise more rational avenue to divest yourself of your resources.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The odds on the re-election campaign of Benjamin Netanyahu currently hinge on two factors: Whether he will be indicted for bribery prior to Election Day April 9, and, more crucially, will the leaders of the major centrist parties forgo ego and other constraints, and create a united bloc to challenge the prime minister at the polls? 

BETTING WINDOW 1: What are the current odds that Netanyahu will lose in 2019?

Until this week, with the left adrift and anemic, the center in indecisive limbo, the far right splintered and bickering, and even the ultra-Orthodox at real risk of losing strength, Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud cast itself, not unjustifiably, as an island of relative stability and unity, and clear electability.

Enter Benny Gantz. 

The long-anticipated kickoff of the ex-army chief's campaign for the premiership in a nationally televised address Tuesday night, caught  Netanyahu and the Likud somewhat flat-footed in response. The Gantz speech bore echoes both of the Old Labor embodied in Yitzhak Rabin's successful 1992 campaign, and of Old Likud, as exemplified by Menachem Begin's anti-corruption, tough-talk campaigns of 1977 and 1981.

Netanyahu's pre-prepared response ("If you say you're neither right nor left, then you're a leftist") was not only tepid, condescending, snarky and inaccurate, but also a slap in the face to centrist swing voters who could decide the election. If, before Gantz' address, the odds were perhaps 95 percent that Netanyahu would win if the election were held this week, the speech appears to have sliced into the prime minister's chances of victory, which remain formidable at around 90 percent.

So why isn't Netanyahu calm and collected?

Campaigning ahead of Election Day April 9 has barely begun, and the odds may be radically affected by events of the coming weeks. For example:

BETTING WINDOW 2: What are the odds that in the course of the campaign, Netanyahu will be indicted for bribery? 

At this point, the odds that the prime minister will be indicted within the next several weeks are nearly as strong as the odds he'll win in April. That is, Netanyahu has about a 90 percent chance of being indicted before the election, or 9 to 1 odds against avoiding such an indictment.

BETTING WINDOW 3: If he's indicted, how do his odds of winning change?

Likud activists have long argued that the "davka" factor, the Israeli version of defiant contrariness, would mean that an indictment would only bolster Netanyahu's electoral strength. But a number of elements, to which we'll return, suggest that indictment would, on balance, sap Netanyahu's appeal for crucial swing voters. 

If he is, in fact, indicted, an Army Radio poll released last week showed that his Likud would lose a potentially critical four seats to other parties. According to the poll, Likud, which currently controls 31 seats as a result of the 2015 election plus a defection, could go as low as 25 seats in the 2019 results. 

The odds favoring an easy Netanyahu victory would then be shaken. If indicted, he would still be the front runner, but his chance of winning would be sapped, to, say, 75 percent, or 3 to 1 odds of his losing.

At this point, the election's principal wild card comes into play:

BETTING WINDOW 4: What's the chance that Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz will agree to run on a joint ticket, with the possible additions of Tzipi Livni, Orli Levi-Abekasis, Gabi Ashkenazi and/or Labor? 

As of this week, both Lapid and Gantz have paid lip service to joining forces, but neither has been willing to take the step that would seal the deal - yielding the top spot on the list to the other.

Gantz' popularity continues to be a phenomenon. Polls matching the ex-army chief against Netanyahu have shown Gantz to be the only credible challenger for the premiership. This has put explicit pressure on Lapid, who has increasingly been seen as the stumbling block to a union. But even in a political landscape of Mt. Rushmore-grade egos, Lapid's exalted sense of self appears to be unmatched. 

Analysts have suggested that Lapid and Gantz are refusing a merger because both believe that Netanyahu will win the April election in any case, and both are positioning themselves for the next election, which, in view of Netanyahu's legal woes, could come as soon as 2020.

All this could change in a heartbeat. As of now, though, the odds that the centrist parties forge what Israeli pundits call a Big Bang joint party, which could also include Tzipi Livni's Tnuah and even perhaps Orli Levi-Abecassis' Gesher, and former army chief Gabi Ashkenazi, are running at about 20 to 1 against, or less than a 5 percent chance.

Given the borderline pathological high self-regard of Labor chief Avi Gabbay, the chance of such a coalition also including Labor is even more unlikely, at 30 to 1 against.

BETTING WINDOW 5: In the truly unlikely event of a Lapid-Gantz merger, what are the odds that Netanyahu will lose the election?

Recent polls suggest that if the merger took place, and if Gantz were the list's standard bearer, the party could receive 28 or more seats. This would turn the odds on their head.

In one poll, taken earlier this month, the scenario of a Lapid-Gantz merger predicted that such a party would win a victory of 34 seats over 26 for Netanyahu's Likud, well over a 50-50 chance of defeating the prime minister.

If other centrist parties were were to join, the odds of a Netanyahu defeat would take another kick upward, with as many as 40 seats for a broad merger party, versus 29 for Likud, nearly a 60 percent chance of a Likud loss.

The merger is the horse to watch. If it takes place, the momentum of the race would shift in an instant.

Israel, as immutable as its politics may seem, remains the place where the inconceivable can turn overnight into the unstoppable. Translation:

If indictment is followed by a broad centrist merger, odds are that Netanyahu will go down to his third - and perhaps final - defeat.