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Analysis

The election is in President Rivlin’s hands

Hours before exit polls come out it’s a wide open field, with another Netanyahu term eminently possible, either with or without Herzog

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin casts his vote at a polling station in Jerusalem on March 17, 2015. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin casts his vote at a polling station in Jerusalem on March 17, 2015. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

At 10 p.m., TV exit polls will give us a first snapshot of what voters actually did on Election Day.

Since Israeli voters rarely behave the way they tell pollsters they’ll behave, everything contained in this article is intended to serve as a baseline. If votes shift noticeably one way or the other, hopefully the discussion of this baseline situation will clarify what those shifts mean.

By all the evidence we can muster – that is, the average of multiple polls from last Friday, the last day in which publishing polls was allowed – one thing is clear: the race for prime minister will almost certainly be close enough that it will be up to President Reuven Rivlin to determine who gets first chance at forming a coalition.

The last available polls show an average as follows: Zionist Union at 25 seats; Likud 22; Arab Joint List 13; Yesh Atid 12; Jewish Home 11; Kulanu 9; Shas 8; UTJ 6; Yisrael Beytenu 5; Meretz 5; Yachad 4.

Here are some observations relating to coalition arithmetic:

  1. On Monday, UTJ publicly announced it would not back Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bid for another term in its recommendations to Rivlin. On Tuesday, Election Day, Kulanu said the same. That means that Netanyahu does not have a majority of 61 seats to ensure he gets the first shot at forming the coalition. He will reliably have Likud, Jewish Home, Shas, Yisrael Beytenu and Yachad, for a total of just 50.
  2. That doesn’t mean Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog has any hope of getting a 61 majority off the bat either. He can only rely on Zionist Union, Yesh Atid, at most two-thirds of the Arab Joint List (it is extremely unlikely that the Balad faction, for example, will recommend Herzog) and Meretz, for a total of 50.
  3. If either camp gets 11 seats more than the last poll averages – the premiership is theirs.
  4. Since that is unlikely to happen, no candidate will have the 61 recommendations needed to be a shoo-in to the premiership, and the decision will rest in Rivlin’s hands.

Pundits (including this one) have offered half a dozen possible scenarios in recent days for how the election could play out. While Israeli voters are notoriously fickle, the race is essentially between two scenarios:

  1. A Netanyahu-led Likud government
  2. A unity government led jointly, probably in rotation, by Herzog and Netanyahu (or, if he resigns, another Likud leader such as Gilad Erdan)

A Herzog-led government is possible, of course, but only if his camp surges enough to make Rivlin offer him first chance – an unlikely scenario – and enough to allow him to cobble together a stable parliamentary coalition. That surge is unlikely.

Therefore:

  1. If the final results show only a small gap between Likud and Zionist Union, say 22 for Likud and 24 for Zionist Union, Likud is likely to get first chance at forming a coalition. A Likud-led coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties, Jewish Home, Kulanu and Yisrael Beytenu has a slim majority of 61. The far-right Yachad would potentially add another four along with Yesh Atid, which will struggle to sit with the ultra-Orthodox but may do so to avoid sitting powerless in the opposition, guaranteeing a stable majority.
  2. If Zionist Union opens a more dramatic lead over Likud – 27 to Likud’s 21 is entirely within range of the polls’ trends as of Friday – Rivlin has already intimated, and Netanyahu has feared for months, that he will urge the two leaders to form a national unity government with a rotating premiership. Such a coalition would be easy to build mathematically – Likud, Zionist Union, Yesh Atid and Kulanu alone would come to about 68 – but perhaps not politically. Will Netanyahu agree to a rotating premiership? Who goes first? If Netanyahu resigns, as some Likud leaders predict/hope, would his replacement (there will almost certainly have to be a flash primary to determine the new leader, with the frontrunners being Erdan and the recently retired Gideon Sa’ar) agree to such a rotation?

The second scenario haunts Netanyahu’s campaign, and drove his desperate drive for Jewish Home voters on Tuesday, in which he warned voters (apparently without actual evidence) that Arab turnout was rising and Zionist Union was dangerously ahead.

It is entirely possible that Netanyahu knows something we don’t. Publishing polls is forbidden in the days before Election Day, but conducting them isn’t. Netanyahu may know he is losing the electorate, or Netanyahu may know he is rising but sees the desperation campaign as key to ensuring a larger Likud and thus a more stable government after Election Day.

If Zionist Union surges, expect a unity government, or even, perhaps, a Herzog one. If Likud recovers, Likud’s path to a government is an easy one.

Three major factors could turn these calculations upside down: Meretz, Yisrael Beytenu and Yachad. All three are just a few tens of thousands of votes from the 3.25 percent electoral threshold. If they fall below that line, they take four or five seats away from the above calculations to their respective sides. If Yachad and Yisrael Beytenu fall, Herzog comes within much closer reach of a left-led coalition. If Meretz does, Herzog’s path to a Labor coalition all but evaporates – and, perhaps, his path to a unity government as well.

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