ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 148

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State of the campaign

Will an ‘election surprise’ party break the political deadlock?

Protest party Fiery Youth hopes to replicate the Pensioners’ longshot success of 2006. But it could also meet the same fate as 2021’s quickly forgotten Shulmanim

  • The state of the Israeli election campaign: Poll of polls, September 4, 2022, showing the number of seats parties would be expected to win if the election was held today, based on a weighing of the latest opinion polls.
    The state of the Israeli election campaign: Poll of polls, September 4, 2022, showing the number of seats parties would be expected to win if the election was held today, based on a weighing of the latest opinion polls.
  • Fiery Youth party chair Hadar Muchtar speaks at a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, June 27, 2022. (Screenshot/YouTube)
    Fiery Youth party chair Hadar Muchtar speaks at a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, June 27, 2022. (Screenshot/YouTube)
  • The state of the political blocs, September 4, 2022.
    The state of the political blocs, September 4, 2022.
  • Members of the Pensioners party pose for photographs at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on April 3, 2006, a week after winning 7 seats in the general elections. Party leader Rafi Eitan is third from right (Guy Assayag/Flash90)
    Members of the Pensioners party pose for photographs at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on April 3, 2006, a week after winning 7 seats in the general elections. Party leader Rafi Eitan is third from right (Guy Assayag/Flash90)

Another week has gone by, and the polls remain as deadlocked as ever.

Over the past month we have seen a three-seat swing from the Netanyahu bloc to the current “change” government, narrowing the gap from six to three seats, which is a noteworthy trend.

Yet before anyone reads too much into that, all it does is return our average to within 0.1 seats of where we started 10 weeks ago – with the Netanyahu bloc hovering around 59 seats and the outgoing coalition around 56.

Crucially, at this stage, neither looks able to comfortably form a government.

With no sign of a breakthrough in the horizon, observers have been left wondering what could possibly break the deadlock.

After all, a military operation in Gaza didn’t do it, and neither – so far – has last week’s news that then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be found in part responsible for the April 2021 Mount Meron crush that killed 45 people, Israel’s worst ever civil disaster.

The state of the Israeli election campaign: Poll of polls, September 4, 2022, showing the number of seats parties would be expected to win if the election was held today, based on a weighing of the latest opinion polls.

One thing that has in the past served as a deadlock breaker is an “election surprise” – a new party that seems to come out of nowhere to enter the Knesset, enabling one of the blocs to form a government.

With such a close election, such a party does not even have to cross the electoral threshold – it just has to “waste” enough votes from one of the blocs.

The major parties of course understand this, and look to both avoid “wasted votes” from within their bloc and encourage “wasted votes” on the other side.

The state of the political blocs, September 4, 2022.

This came to mind this week, when – in an otherwise fairly uneventful Channel 12 poll – the Fiery Youth party (Tze’irim Bo’arim), led by 20-year-old TikToker Hadar Muchtar, which calls for reducing the cost of living, managed to obtain 1.5%.

Of course, 1.5% is under the threshold, and equates to just a handful of respondents in a sample of 500. But it should not be dismissed out of hand.

The Pensioners precedent?

Muchtar’s party far outstripped more established tiny parties such as the Green Party, as well as the new Israel Free party founded by current ex-Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar, which registered 0.0% in the same poll. And Zionist Spirit, led by Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, only did marginally better than Muchtar, with 2.1% of the sample.

So 1.5% is not a lot, but it is not nothing, and it isn’t too far away, in absolute terms, from the 3.25% threshold.

Fiery Youth party chair Hadar Muchtar speaks at a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, June 27, 2022. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Responding to the news, Muchtar tweeted “In our first poll! With 0 Shekels! This is how the Pensioners Party started. Don’t you dare belittle the youth!”

With this tweet, Muchtar highlighted why she believes people should take a moment before writing off her party and others like it. Because there is a clear precedent for parties such as hers doing well.

A good example of this is, indeed, the Pensioners Party. A fringe party advocating for the rights of pensioners since the 1990s, it burst onto the national scene at the 2006 election, where – serving mainly as a protest vote – it managed to win seven seats, despite averaging around one seat in pre-election polls.

Members of the Pensioners party pose for photographs at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 3, 2006, a week after winning 7 seats in the general elections. Party leader Rafi Eitan is third from right (Guy Assayag/Flash90)

Two elections later, in 2013, the big surprise was Yesh Atid. Though the situation was somewhat different – Yair Lapid was popular, with a strong brand, and was always going to comfortably pass the threshold – one month before the election Yesh Atid was polling at around seven to nine seats, before ultimately securing 19 seats, making it the second-biggest party.

At the next election – in 2015 – the “surprise” was Kulanu, led by Moshe Kahlon. Again, Kahlon was popular and well known, but his party was brand new and had generally polled around the seven-seat mark throughout the campaign, before ending up with 10 seats.

By this stage, the concept of an election surprise party had almost become the conventional wisdom in Israeli politics. The theory went that there were up to 10 seats worth of floating voters who tended to decide late. Indeed, in our own internal polls during previous Israeli campaigns, up to 20% of “likely voters” were undecided up until late. These voters generally came from the center, were disaffected with the current options, and were looking for something new — something that went beyond the traditional left-right divide.

According to the theory, a socially minded party that managed to be in the right place at the right time to catch the wave could suddenly end up with a highly unexpected Knesset presence.

This gave hope to – and continues to give hope to – all manner of new and small parties, and it is easy to see how it could be applied to Muchtar’s party.

Harder to surprise

Indeed, looking at this history it is not impossible to imagine a scenario in which she manages to catch the imagination of a group of young people, frustrated with the high cost of living and political deadlock, and ends up passing the threshold. Alternatively, her party could waste just enough votes to swing the election.

But while this should not be ruled out, there have been three main developments in recent years that have made it harder for new and small parties to become election surprises.

The first is that the record of these parties – initially at least – has been pretty mixed. The Pensioners, Yesh Atid and Kulanu all ended up joining the coalition after the election, which was always in their plans. The problem is that many of their votes came as protest votes, but the parties ended up joining the same government as had existed before the election.

The parties therefore quickly became seen as part of the establishment – and part of the problem – and rightly or wrongly, were seen as having failed. The Pensioners and Kulanu were effectively wiped out at the next election, while Yesh Atid saw its seats halved, and needed a spell in opposition to truly recover.

Second, since 2019, Israeli politics has become increasingly bloc-dominated. With every election fought around a simple “Yes Bibi vs No Bibi” dynamic, it is extremely hard for new parties to maintain the strategic ambiguity that is required to take votes from all sides. Voters want to know exactly where parties stand – and who they would sit with – and the “wrong” answer to this question is generally a deal-breaker for voters.

Specifically, voters in the center-left bloc have become skeptical of voting for seemingly independent socially minded parties that in reality join the Netanyahu government at the earliest opportunity.

Yamina party MK Abir Kara in the Knesset on April 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitousi/Flash90)

The best example of this is the case of the Shulmanim ahead of the 2021 election. A movement set up to advocate for the self-employed, the Shulmanim caught the imagination around the lockdowns in 2020, and polled around the five-seat mark at its peak, despite never being a political party. In short, the Shulmanim looked like a classic “election surprise” party.

What arguably stopped this happening in the end was the dominance of bloc politics. Its leader, Abir Kara, was forced to answer the same question over and over again – “Will you sit in a government led by Bibi?” – and his answer was never wholly satisfactory.

One incident in particular highlighted the concern many had, when Kara was seen to be texting with then-finance minister Israel Katz (Likud) in the middle of a television interview, despite claiming not to be in contact with him. This further gave rise to the impression that his party was coordinating with Likud – possibly even as a deliberate ploy to siphon off votes from the center. Kara’s star quickly fell, and he later folded his party into Yamina, leaving behind a greater skepticism of such parties among anti-Bibi voters.

It is not hard to envisage a similar scenario playing out over the next few weeks should Fiery Youth really take off, especially considering its leader’s past statements – in favor of Netanyahu and Likud, and against the judiciary – already coming to light.

Third, and perhaps most significant, is the fact that voting for a party that probably won’t cross the threshold is a risk for voters who do not want to waste their vote. This fear was accentuated by the raising of the threshold from 2% to 3.25% ahead of the 2015 election.

While the legacy of the Pensioners party lives long in the memory, dozens of similar parties have tried and failed to emulate it, leaving behind tens of thousands of wasted votes.

In 2013, for example, anti-corruption activist Eldad Yaniv made a big splash with his Eretz Hadasha party, but ended up “wasting” 28,000 votes, equivalent to about one seat. Similarly, the pro-marijuana legalization Green Leaf party consistently won a similar number of votes, but never passed the threshold.

Zehut party chairman Moshe Feiglin at a party event in Tel Aviv, on August 27, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Most significantly, in April 2019, Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut party – which played down his hardline views, instead campaigning on a libertarian platform – threatened to be a major surprise, crossing the threshold in a host of polls. In the end, he “wasted” around 120,000 votes (three seats).

Indeed, as time has passed and the memory of 2006 fizzles out, it seems the public has become increasingly reluctant to vote for such parties, and it is notable that there was no equivalent “election surprise” example in the past three election rounds.

What does this mean for the Fiery Youth party, and for its chances of breaking the political deadlock?

The next few weeks will be important. If it can begin to regularly get close to the threshold in polls, and even cross it once or twice, it could conceivably become a viable protest vote for younger voters. But with that success will come greater attention and questions, in particular, about its bloc affiliation. And these questions will be hard to answer.

So while the potential is certainly there for a breakthrough party to provide an election surprise – and with it shake up the entire bloc dynamic – right now it still looks like a long shot.

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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