Anyone following the current Israeli election campaign would be forgiven for feeling a certain sense of déjà vu.
This is not just due to the tame, repetitive nature of the campaign so far, but something far more fundamental.
For while some of the parties and personalities have changed over the past five cycles, the basic contours of public opinion are extremely consistent.
Just look at the graph below, showing the results of the past four election cycles by blocs, which for the past few years have been defined not by ideology but by “Yes Bibi, or No Bibi.”
There will no doubt be some debate over how we have characterized the parties. In the April 2019 campaign, for example, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party was widely assumed to be in Netanyahu’s bloc but in the end did not go into his government, so we have placed it with the anti-Netanyahu bloc. And on the other side, we have included Naftali Bennett’s Yamina in the pro-Bibi bloc in 2021, based on his campaign pledges, despite the fact he ended up heading the anti-Netanyahu government.
But while these post-facto characterizations are open for debate, the bottom line is clear. In three of the four cycles, parties supportive of Netanyahu won between 58 and 60 seats – almost, but not quite, enough to form a government. The exception was the September 2019 election, when the anti-Netanyahu bloc won significantly more seats, but was unable to form a government.
That failure highlights the key difference between the two blocs. The Netanyahu bloc today comprises Likud, Religious Zionism, the two Haredi parties and likely the new Zionist Spirit party. The glue that keeps this bloc together is a semblance of ideological homogeny and the existence of an undisputed leader.
The anti-Bibi bloc, on the other hand, features a wide range of views that make forming a coherent government almost impossible. Indeed, the only clear unifying force buttressing the outgoing government was the supposedly shared policy of “just not Bibi.” And yet, in reality, even that was not true, as one by one, right-wing coalition members left the government to reunite with Netanyahu.
The main takeaway here is that the most likely – or maybe even the only – way that the upcoming election produces a decisive result is if the Netanyahu bloc wins 61 seats, something it has failed to do the last four times.
Polling so far shows that the Netanyahu bloc is again very close – but just short – of 61. The Netanyahu core bloc (Likud, Religious Zionism and the Haredi parties) has averaged between 58.8 and 60 seats in the six weeks of the current campaign, and is currently averaging 59.1. There is therefore little indication that this bloc is any closer to the coveted 61 seats than in previous cycles.
The big question mark here, though, is this week’s new party, Zionist Spirit. Formed as a merger between Yamina, now led by Ayelet Shaked, and Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel’s Derech Eretz party, Zionist Spirit gained four seats in both polls conducted since the merger was announced (despite neither component party passing the threshold in any previous poll for weeks). The overall impact of that was to push the Netanyahu bloc above 61 in both polls, taking its average up to 60.7.
There are at this stage two points worth making about the new party. First, while it is to some extent attempting to remain between the blocs, it has not ruled out sitting under Netanyahu, and most observers believe it will happily join a Netanyahu-led government. In reality, therefore, it should probably now be considered in the Netanyahu bloc.
Second, as we noted with regard to the Blue and White-New Hope merger, the announcement of new parties and mergers leads to a spate of media coverage which tends to boost poll numbers. This boost, though, is generally short-lived, and Blue and White-New Hope has already dropped 1.6 seats in the past two weeks. A new party polling at just four seats, therefore, does not bode well for its prospects, and we should not be surprised to see it fall back under the threshold in the coming weeks.
All of this means that Netanyahu’s prospects again hang by a thread. With public opinion unlikely to change drastically in the next 13 weeks, for Netanyahu to finally get to 61 seats he will in all likelihood require at least one of Meretz and Ra’am to not pass the threshold; Zionist Spirit to pass the threshold; or massive turnout on the right (or alternatively very depressed turnout on the left or in the Arab sector).
Possible? Definitely. Likely? Depends on whom you ask.
The numbers don’t add up
And if the Netanyahu bloc again fails to get to 61 seats, then what?
The present government is currently polling at 54.9 seats in our average (53.3 if we assume Zionist Spirit is now in the other camp), far short of the 61 seats required. Even if it somehow did get to 61, the diverging views in the bloc would again make forming – and maintaining – a government extremely challenging.
Incorporating the Joint List of mainly Arab parties (which currently averages 6 seats) into the government has also been ruled out by most key players, rendering it likely a non-starter.
The hope for Prime Minister Yair Lapid is that if Netanyahu again fails to get to 61 seats, the Haredi parties — Shas and United Torah Judaism — will this time join his coalition. This hope is based on several factors. The Haredim have not enjoyed their time in opposition; they require the budgets that come from being a coalition party. And most significantly, the Haredi parties have floated the idea of supporting someone else for prime minister if Netanyahu fails.
But the problem for Lapid is that he has traditionally been seen as nothing short of evil in the Haredi community, and the Haredi parties have consistently ruled out joining a government led by him.
One person they have not ruled out as a potential alternative partner, however, is Defense Minister Benny Gantz. Indeed, it is the understanding that he is more acceptable to the Haredim than Lapid that forms the basis of Gantz’s own hopes of becoming prime minister, despite his Blue and White-New Hope party almost certainly winning fewer seats than Lapid.
The problem with this scenario is that again the numbers likely still don’t add up.
Liberman has expressly ruled out sitting in a government with the Haredim, and a Blue and White-Yesh Atid-Haredi coalition only gets to 49.4 seats in our current average. Adding Labor and Meretz (certainly no guarantee) takes it to 58.6 seats, meaning again relying on Ra’am as the decisive vote – something Gantz has said he will not do.
Therefore, even if Shas and UTJ were open to joining a Gantz-led centrist government (which itself is questionable), the numbers may well not be there.
The Haredi parties would no doubt prefer a repeat of the 2020 unity-rotation government between Likud and Blue and White, but this time with Gantz going first in the rotation. But in media interviews this week, Gantz was emphatic in nixing this idea too.
And herein lies the crux of the issue. This is a column about polling and public opinion, and it is based on the assumption that the voters determine elections. But public opinion has been extremely stable for the past three and a half years, giving no mandate to any of these outcomes.
If the Netanyahu bloc manages to eke its way to 61 seats, the story will likely be settled, at least for the time being. But if that doesn’t happen, we are left with just two possibilities.
One is that one or more party leaders break their word to the voters and form a government that they have committed to not doing. This is what happened after the third and fourth elections, which at least led to governments being formed, albeit briefly. Maybe this means Benny Gantz again sitting with Netanyahu. Maybe it means Liberman sitting with the Haredim. Or maybe even the Haredi parties will do the unthinkable and join a Lapid-led government.
The other scenario… a sixth round of elections sometime in 2023.
Simon Davies and Joshua Hantman are partners at Number 10 Strategies, an international strategic, research and communications consultancy, who have polled and run campaigns for presidents, prime ministers, political parties and major corporations across dozens of countries in four continents.
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