Israeli politics is massively entertaining and raucous under normal circumstances, but tomorrow’s election is particularly special since for the first time in awhile, the outcome is entirely up in the air. Nobody knows with any real degree of certainty who will emerge victorious or how the coalition horse trading will conclude or even who is going to get the first shot at building that coalition. Americans – me very much included – spend lots of time watching shows like House of Cards, Scandal, Game of Thrones, and others that provide twists and turns that hinge on varying degrees of political surprises, but there is nothing like the real thing, and Israel’s election is certain to provide that. If you haven’t been paying attention, you’re missing the best reality show that exists.
Anybody who is confident that they know who the ultimate winner will be is demagoguing and I do not claim any clairvoyant powers, so take everything that follows with a grain of salt as it is nothing more than my best guess based on the last polls that were published on Friday and some intuition developed after years of closely paying attention to Israeli political trends. Israeli polls are notoriously unreliable; large classes of voters are disproportionately inaccessible to pollsters (Haredim, Arabs, immigrants, working poor), Israeli voters are fickle and in many cases do not decide until the last minute, and the proportional representation system presents a fundamental dilemma of voting strategically versus voting your conscience. For instance, pretend that you are a lifelong Meretz voter stepping up to the ballot box on Tuesday. You are almost certainly secular, liberal, Ashkenazi, living in Tel Aviv or its immediate environs, and you despise Netanyahu with a burning passion. In the last election, you knew that the left had no shot at forming the government and so there was no reason not to vote for Meretz. In this election, however, the last polls gave the Machane Tziyoni (Zionist Camp) alliance led by Herzog and Livni a four point lead over Likud, and you know that at least a four point margin is likely required if Zionist Camp is to be given the first shot at forming the government. So voting for Meretz and the leftist bloc overall is actually not cost-free even though your vote for Meretz is functionally a vote for a Herzog government, as Herzog needs as much as a lead as he can get over Netanyahu in order to get a chance at building a coalition. The Habayit Hayehudi voter at the opposite end of the spectrum is faced with the same choice; voting for the far-right party that is guaranteed to be part of a Netanyahu coalition risks empowering the leftist (and yes, that is a dirty word to your typical rightwing Israeli voter), defeatist, if not outright anti-Zionist Herzog and Livni, and so do you swallow your principles and vote for Likud directly, or do you vote for Habayit Hayehudi and Naftali Bennett as the only way of keeping Netanyahu honest and guaranteeing that a Likud government will never compromise on settlements and giving up land? This is all a roundabout way of saying that Nate Silver’s sorcery would never work on the Israeli election, because the polls are a guidepost but are not entirely trustworthy.
Assuming that the final polling results hold up – and I don’t think that they necessarily will – it is going to be very hard for Herzog and Livni to form a government. The last Channel 2 poll had Zionist Camp at 25, Likud at 21, Joint Arab List at 13, Yesh Atid at 11, Habayit Hayehudi at 11, Kulanu at 9, Shas at 9, UTJ at 6, Yisrael Beiteinu at 6, Meretz at 5, and Yachad at 4. We can safely assume that Zionist Camp, Yesh Atid, and Meretz are a united bloc, which is 41 seats. Likud, Habayit Hayehudi, and Yachad will not join with that group under any circumstances and they hold 36 seats, which leaves a leftwing government needing to pick up 20 seats from the 43 remaining. The 13 seats held by the Arab list can be used to block Netanyahu and Likud, but since the Arab list is not going to sit with Zionist parties barring a momentous and unprecedented policy change, Herzog actually needs to find 20 seats from the 30 represented by Kulanu, Shas, UTJ, and Yisrael Beiteinu. Shas and UTJ have sat with leftwing governments in the past, but even if they are willing to do so again, neither they or Lapid will sit with each other. Yisrael Beiteinu, which is led by Avigdor Lieberman, won’t sit with Meretz (and vice versa). Herzog could potentially pick up Kulanu, but he’d still need to somehow break the logjam between Lapid and the Haredi parties in order to get to the magic number of 61. In other words, Zionist Camp can beat Likud and the ideological leftwing bloc can beat the ideological rightwing bloc, and Herzog still has an almost impossible uphill climb to form a coalition. Not many people foresaw the bizarre Lapid-Bennett alliance two years ago and so I’m not willing to say that Herzog cannot somehow work some sort of combination of magic and legalized bribery in order to cobble something together, but it would be pretty much the most unworkable coalition in Israeli history and would be on death watch from day one. The one big wrinkle would be if the Arab list decides that actual political power is worth compromising on its principles and joins the coalition, but even then Herzog is not home free as Kahlon has publicly stated that he will not sit in a government that is dependent on the Joint Arab List for seats, which means convincing the Haredi parties to sit with Lapid, Meretz, and Arab parties. In other words, I wouldn’t be putting very much money on the next prime minister being Buji Herzog.
Netanyahu’s path is also difficult, but far less so. He starts with 36 and needs another 25 out of the remaining 30, but Shas, UTJ, and Yisrael Beiteinu sat in Netanyahu’s 2009 coalition and are all natural Likud partners. Those three parties get him to 57, meaning that Netanyahu’s fate hinges upon Kahlon. On the one hand, Kahlon is a former Likud minister whose list includes Netanyahu’s first term ambassador to the U.S. (Michael Oren) and whose support is drawn from Mizrahi traditional Likud supporters. On the other, Kahlon left Likud for a reason, starting with the fact that his stance on socioeconomic issues – which is his raison d’être in politics – is way out of whack with Likud and the right generally, and his base of voters has become disillusioned with Likud after feeling like it has been taken for granted and leans more left on economic issues. That Kahlon has stated as his goal to be appointed finance minister also cuts both ways. Netanyahu publicly promised over the weekend that Kahlon would be finance minister in his government irrespective of the number of seats Kulanu wins (an offer that Kahlon refused to accept before the election), and this is a promise that Herzog cannot match given his pledge to appoint Manuel Trajtenberg as finance minister should Zionist Camp form the next government. Despite this, it is hard to imagine Kahlon being more empowered to implement his agenda of lowering housing costs and regulating Israel’s banking system under a Likud government than he would be under a Labor government, and Kahlon know this full well. Again, I claim no clairvoyance to know what Kahlon is thinking or what his natural inclination is before both sides start wooing him in earnest, but I do know that he appears to control the only viable path to a third consecutive Netanyahu term, and you can bet that Netanyahu will move heaven and earth to gain Kahlon’s support. To paraphrase Mel Brooks, it’s good to be the king(maker).
Assuming that Kahlon does not want to enthrone Bibi, it means that Israel is headed for a national unity government. That could happen right away if Kahlon and Lieberman (natural allies in many ways given that they are both immigrants who came of age in Likud and now head parties that champion socially rightwing voters who have traditionally been poor and on the margins of Israeli society) decide that they will not recommend either Netanyahu or Herzog to President Rubi Rivlin and instead insist on a short-lived national unity government (and if they do this, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Yair Lapid, with his finger perpetually to the wind, do the same). It could also happen after three or six weeks of drawn out haggling with no resolution. If this happens, it would mean Netanyahu and Herzog agreeing to a prime ministerial rotation, and I have my doubts as to whether Bibi would actually accept such a scenario or would resign instead. In any event, for those who are still following along here, the sum total of this is that I am expecting either a third Netanyahu term or a national unity government, and which one occurs hinges entirely on Moshe Kahlon.
A few other small things to watch out for if you’re keeping score at home. First is whether Meretz, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Yachad clear the new higher electoral threshold of 3.25%, up from a previous 2%. While I suspect they will all squeak in – and frankly, you almost have to be rooting for YB and Lieberman not to make it for poetic justice purposes since he engineered the higher threshold in an effort to keep the Arab parties out in a move that backfired ever so spectacularly – the one I am keeping my eye on is Meretz, since it will not surprise me if Meretz is kept out of the Knesset. Meretz has basically been on a long and slow 15 year decline, but the pressure is really on now because I expect some Meretz voters to defect to Zionist Camp now that the left smells blood in the water and is riding the momentum of the final polls putting Herzog and Livni in first place. If Meretz does not make it in, this places Herzog’s path to becoming prime minister even further out of reach.
Second is the bad blood – and that’s putting it mildly – between Yachad leader Eli Yishai and Shas leader Aryeh Deri, the man whom Yishai replaced as head of Shas and who then had his revenge by replacing Yishai. In an effort to get back at Deri, Yishai split from Shas, initiating a nasty internecine fight and invoking insults directed at Deri from beyond the grave by deceased Shas spiritual leader and founder Ovadia Yosef. Yishai and Deri are mortal enemies, and having the two of them in the same coalition might present some problems as well.
And lastly, a final word about the polls. As I indicated, I don’t particularly trust in their accuracy, and I am guessing that they will be wrong in a few ways. First, I think that Likud will gain back some votes at Habayit Hayehudi’s expense as rightwing voters are freaked out by the late Zionist Camp surge in the polls, and decide to throw their support behind Netanyahu despite their general fatigue with him. Second, socioeconomic issues are dominating people’s concerns, and that will translate into unexpectedly strong showings for Yesh Atid and Kulanu at the expense of Zionist Camp and Shas. Since I want to give everyone the opportunity to mock how far off I am, my final spot predictions for the election are as follows:
Likud – 23
Zionist Union – 22
Yesh Atid -15
Joint Arab List – 12
Kulanu – 12
Habayit Hayehudi – 11
UTJ – 7
Shas – 6
Yisrael Beiteinu – 4
Meretz – 4
Yachad – 4