Israeli Election Forecast: More Netanyahu Likely

Israeli politics is divided along multiple cleavage lines. Americans are most keenly attuned the divide between proponents and opponents of the two-state solution but there are several other divisions that do not always split Israeli society on the same line. Beyond the increasingly powerful between religious and secular Israelis, ethnic divisions between Askhenazim and Sephardim persist. Of course, the Arab minority has its own internal divisions.

Latest Developments

Israeli parties move fast, especially during election campaigns, and there have been two developments since last week’s post. First, Avigdor Lieberman has ruled out the possibility of Yisrael Beitenu joining a coalition led by Zionist Union. Second, Eli Yishai has hooked up his tiny breakaway party from Shas (Ha’am Itanu) with MK Yoni Chetboun, who quit Bayit Yehudi, into a new list called Yachad (Together). Yachad will run on a joint list with extreme right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength) under the Yachad name.

Current Polls

Leaving aside these latest last minute hookups before the deadline for finalizing lists, the key question is whether incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his opponents will possess enough strength in the 120-member Knesset to form a coalition. (Check out Jeremy’s Knesset Insider for polls and more analysis.)

Here is the average predicted seats from last week’s gaggle of polls according to Jeremy:

25.2 Zionist Union
24.4 Likud
14.7 Bayit Yehudi
12.0 United Arab List
09.4 Yesh Atid
07.7 Kulanu
07.1 United Torah Judaism
07.1 Shas
05.4 Yisrael Beitenu
05.3 Meretz
03.3 Yachad

Netanyahu starts out with a good base of 39-43 seats from his own party and close allies. His Likud party has been polling around 24 seats. Bayit Yehudi, an even more right-wing party, has little choice but to support Netanyahu and is on course to gain about 15 mandates. If Yachad makes it past the 3.25% threshold, he will contribute another 4 seats to a Netanyahu coalition.

Bibi can get to the magic 61 MKs in a number of ways. First, he can join up with the two major religious parties: Shas, and UTJ. They exist to be in government, as otherwise they cannot threaten to leave it to gain more funding for their schools or to block anti-religious legislation.

Adding on either Yisrael Beitenu or Kulanu–and more likely both would join–would put him over the top. This right-religious coalition would resemble previous right-wing coalitions, such as the one led by Yitzhak Shamir. It would be reasonably cohesive, though only by the standards of Israeli politics.

The core anti-Bibi Zionist parties–Zionist Camp (Labor and Hatnuah), Yesh Atid, and Merez–together start with a relatively impressive 40 seats. The problems start when one tries to add on other parties to get to 61. Think of it as being like junior high where A won’t talk or sit next to B unless C isn’t there.

While Shas and UTJ usually prefer right-wing governments, they will also join left-wing governments, as they too can provide access to the state treasury. However, it is hard to imagine the diehard secular Yesh Atid sitting in government with Shas or UTJ.

Similarly, United Arab List will never support Bibi. But it also likely would not support any coalition formed by Zionist parties. Excepting possibly Meretz, the Zionist parties reciprocate the feeling because of concerns regarding security–always a central issue in Israel–and being close to anti-Israel Arab MKs like Haneen Zoabi, which would alienate the Jewish center.

Opposition parties would pounce, claiming that a coalition dependent on United Arab List MKs cannot defend Jewish interests in negotiations with the Palestinians. In short, United Arab List can help keep Netanyahu out but it is not clear that they would or could serve in government. (Note: UAL has one Jewish MK and Arab MKs also win off of predominantly Jewish lists.)

Finally, adding Kulanu would not bring a Zionist Camp-Yesh Atid-Meretz coalition even above 50 without either the religious or Arab parties. Thought the left has performed better in recent polls, a left-led government is still much harder to envision than a right-wing one led by Netanyahu.

Disunity Government

Finally, Likud and Zionist Camp could join up to form a “unity” government. Together with Kulanu and various other willing participants, it could easily possess far more than 61 votes. This would give Netanyahu the opportunity to give Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett the old heave-ho. Even better for Netanyahu, either Yitzhak Herzog or Tzipi Livni would become foreign minister, likely easing the building European pressure on Israel and the current discord with the Obama administration.

In some ways, this seems the most likely combination due to the opportunities it provides Netanyahu and many others. But either this or another right-wing government feels like a rerun of earlier Israeli government reality shows.

Wild Card: The Threshold

Israel has always had very low thresholds to enter parliament. The last Knesset raised it, however, from 2% to 3.25%. Three parties–Yachad, Meretz, and Yisrael Beitenu, face serious danger of failing to pass it and receiving no seats. Any failure by them would redound to the benefit of other parties.

If Meretz made it past the threshold but Yachad and Yisrael Beitenu fell short, it would be a great boon to the left, as right-wing voters will have wasted a disproportionate number of votes. Of course, the reverse could also occur.

Another reason Israel’s election night in March will be fun to watch.