The mergers, or missed mergers, that could determine the election
Will Ben Gvir and Smotrich maintain their alliance on the far right, and should Labor and Meretz revive theirs on the left? The political stakes could not be higher
Over the past few weeks, this column has analyzed the state of the campaign from the perspective of the biggest parties. This week, we are shifting our focus towards the smaller parties on the edges of the political spectrum – Labor and Meretz on the left, and Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit on the right.
On both sides, the parties are currently involved in a (very public) internal debate over whether to run together or separately. In this article, we will analyze the dynamics underpinning these decisions, and the potential consequences of whatever path the sides choose.
As we do so, we will attempt to approach the subject from a dispassionate, data-driven perspective; as political practitioners rather than as interested parties. We do, however, acknowledge that for the parties, there are of course other calculations, with ideology, political capital games, ego and interpersonal relationships all playing a role.
Ultimately, while these strategic calculations may lack the glamor of those facing the big parties, they are no less important.
In fact, as noted previously, just one party dropping under the threshold could change the entire outcome of this election, determining who will be prime minister, what government is formed, and what path Israel takes.
The stakes, therefore, could not be higher.
Posturing on the Right
On the right, the current question is not whether or not to merge, but rather whether or not to break up.
On the surface, this seems like an odd debate. If we define the right as parties running to the right of the Likud (which would exclude Yamina in 2021 when Naftali Bennett sought to broaden his appeal), then the current polling situation is the best it has been for a decade.
As shown in the graph below, parties running to the right of the Likud have won between five and eight seats in the past five elections, yet according to our current average, Religious Zionism (including Otzma Yehudit) is polling at 10.6 seats.
What’s more, the party is steadily increasing in the polls, having gained 1.5 seats over the past six weeks, at an average of 0.25 seats per week. If this momentum is maintained, it could be looking at 13 or 14 seats by Election Day, and that is before this weekend’s operation in Gaza, which could well strengthen the right.
Yet despite this, there are voices in the two parties who believe they could bring in more seats if they ran separately.
This drama has been played out on our TV screens, with the two party leaders seemingly negotiating live on the evening news. Polling has also played a role, with Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir calling for an independent poll to determine how a joint list would be composed. His position is also no doubt strengthened by a recent poll suggesting that if the party was led by him, it would bring in 13 seats, as opposed to 10 if led by current Religious Zionism leader, Bezalel Smotrich.
Meanwhile, another poll indicated that if the parties ran separately, they would increase their overall number of seats by two (from 9 in this poll to 11), with Otzma Yehudit bringing in seven seats and Religious Zionism four.
This points to the major issue with the parties running separately: the all-important electoral threshold. While in this case, the overall number of seats could increase by two, it also could easily drop by at least the same number if the Otzma Yehudit-less Religious Zionism dropped slightly to below the 3.25 percent threshold.
This is exactly what happened in April 2019, when Bennett’s New Right Party missed the threshold by a few hundred votes, losing the right-wing bloc up to three seats that would have been decisive. Five months later, in September 2019, Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit, running solo, also missed the threshold, “wasting” 1.9 percent, or approximately two seats.
That is exactly the reason why then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, fearful that there was probably no room for more than one party to his right, chose to intervene ahead of the 2021 elections to ensure the Smotrich-Ben Gvir merger. This ruthless political calculation, avoiding any “wasted votes” in his bloc at all costs, went a long way towards guaranteeing the extremist Ben Gvir’s entry into the Knesset in the face of massive criticism both at home and abroad.
With all sides wise to the risks, the current debate, therefore, is likely a question of posturing over the makeup of the party list and leadership – and future governance – rather than a genuine question of whether or not to break up. After all, when things are going so well for the merged party, why would you risk losing it all?
The Left and the precipice
The situation on the left is more contentious.
Here, the main figures in both Labor and Meretz are opposed to any merger, scarred by the 2020 election when the parties ran a joint list (with the addition of a third party, Orly Levy-Abekasis’ Gesher party). In that election, the left scored its lowest ever number of seats – just seven – as opposed to the ten to thirteen seats it received in other recent election cycles. The two parties are now polling at a combined 9.2 seats.
If we look at the combined number of votes for these left-wing parties, the numbers are even starker. Labor and Meretz have steadily increased their combined vote in each of the three elections where they have run separately, by around 60,000 votes each time. The gaping exception here is when they ran a joint list in 2020.
Here as well, however, the specter of wasted votes looms large. While the data shows that in terms of overall votes, Labor and Meretz do better apart, this is of course reliant on both passing the threshold – which is no certainty.
Meretz, the smaller of the two, is currently polling in our poll of polls at 4 seats, but for the first month of the campaign it was under the threshold, and it could easily drop back down.
If we look historically, we can see that Meretz has been flirting with the threshold consistently since it was raised to 3.25 percent ahead of the 2015 election. In the four elections in which it ran independently, it has only just passed the threshold each time, by between 0.38 and 1.34 percent. Incredibly fine margins.
Unlike on the right, where the trauma of parties missing the threshold is real, on the left, there is a sense that it will be okay this time because it always has been. “In the end,” the argument goes, “the ideological base will come out to vote and bail us out.” But when you are so close to the precipice time and again, eventually the fear is that you fall in.
This fear is magnified by the fact that for those on the left, the stakes are higher. While on the right, the consequence of wasted votes in 2019 was a new election, on the left it would likely mean an outright defeat, and a narrow, Netanyahu-bloc government, comprising only right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties.
With this looming over Labor and Meretz, you can see why the pressure to merge remains, even with the understanding that it will probably mean fewer seats overall.
One additional factor that should be considered is the structure of the election.
The first three elections in this cycle, in 2019 and 2020, were head-to-head races between two juggernauts, Likud and Blue and White, with each winning well above 30 seats. In elections of this nature, a race to be the biggest party often emerges, which draws voters from smaller parties to bigger ones in the closing days.
The best example of this was in April 2019, where Likud gained a stunning seven seats, and Blue and White around five and a half, in the days between the final polls and Election Day. These seats came at the expense of smaller parties in their respective blocs, dropping Bennett’s New Right under the threshold and leaving Meretz perilously close.
In the last election, in 2021, the dynamics were very different. Here, Likud was by far and away the biggest party in all the polls, while its biggest competitor – Yesh Atid – shrewdly played a “bloc game” that sought to boost the anti-Netanyahu bloc as a whole. With no horserace race to become the biggest party, both Likud and Yesh Atid dropped around a seat from the final polling, while the smaller parties gained.
Currently, this election resembles 2021 much more than 2019/2020, with Yesh Atid 12 seats behind Likud (34.3 to 22.3). If it remains like this, Meretz and Labor running separately appears to make more sense.
But were Yesh Atid to gain seats as it seeks to narrow the gap to Likud, its votes would in part come from left-wing parties, driving these parties down towards the threshold. The problem for Labor and Meretz, though, is that with the deadline for submission of lists (and thus any merger decision) six weeks before the election, if this type of campaign were to evolve in the final weeks, it would be too late for them to respond by merging.
The bottom line, therefore, is that the parties – particularly on the left – face a tricky, and potentially election-defining decision.
The data tells us that if they run apart, they will likely garner more votes overall. But in doing so, they run the risk of one, or even both, not passing the threshold.
So in the end, it comes down to a decision any gambler must take. Do the parties accept a likely lower number of combined seats, or take a chance on a better overall outcome, but in doing so, risk losing it all?
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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