Israel’s upcoming elections will have plenty of surprises in store

Israeli voters will head to the polls in three-and-a-half months to elect a new government. Here’s what that means, and where the elections may go.

The ministers of the thirty-fourth government of Israel, alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)
The ministers of the thirty-fourth government of Israel, alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

After weeks of feverish speculation, the Israeli governing coalition voted unanimously on Monday to disband the Knesset and call early elections in April 2019.

Prime Minister Netanyahu had kept the country on its toes since November when some Israeli news outlets irresponsibly reported that Israel was headed for elections following the resignation of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman. Instead Netanyahu wriggled out of a tight spot and convinced his remaining coalition partners to stay for a spell. But with just 61 seats out of 120, the slim government was precarious from the start and the announcement was hardly a surprise.

How should we understand what these elections mean, what will they be about, and what might they bring?

One thing should be clear: these elections should not be considered “early.” It is true that they will be held before the regularly scheduled date, which would have been in November 2019. But any meaningful consequence of the date is overshadowed by the fact that by April, four full years will have passed since the previous elections in March 2015. This reasonable length is rare in a country best known for squabbling, short-lived governments; Netanyahu will invariably be credited with stability, not blamed for elections half a year early.

Further, 3.5 months might be meaningful if poll numbers and electoral trends were volatile – if so, early elections might reflect the best possible speculation, like buying the right stock at the right time. Not so – in Israel, broad electoral trends have been remarkably stable over the last decade. Likud, Netanyahu’s ruling party, has won the last two elections (2013 and 2015) and the right-leaning breakdown for ideological blocs – right-wing, center, and left-wing parties – meant that only Likud was able to form the coalition in 2009, even though the party came in second place by one Knesset seat.

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Since the last elections, public opinion surveys have shown Likud winning relentlessly over all runner up parties, with a lone exception or two well over a year back – outlier polls that showed Yesh Atid, led by centrist Yair Lapid, threatening a neck-in-neck situation. For the last year, Likud has held the lead easily, usually by double digits.

This kind of stability essentially weakens or nulls the significance of elections being held early. It also says something about what the result will mean for the next Israeli government – and as a result, for Israeli policy.

A review of polling over the last year shows that grouping the parties by coalition and opposition (before Liberman resigned, Netanyahu’s government included Likud, Yisrael Beitenu, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, Shas, Kulanu, and United Torah Judaism) – the results almost invariably show the coalition winning. From April to October of 2018, for example, a sampling of surveys shows that the coalition won by a margin as high as 20 seats over the opposition. Only one survey showed a tie of 60-60 seats. (The following data is based on the excellent collection of public polls on the website Jeremy’s Knesset Insider, the graph is my visualization – “CL” stands for Center and Left-wing parties).

An overview of pre-election surveys shows a clear advantage for the right-wing, religious bloc. (Courtesy of Jeremy’s Knesset Insider)
An overview of pre-election surveys shows a clear advantage for the right-wing, religious bloc. (Courtesy of Jeremy’s Knesset Insider)

The consistent victory of religious and right-wing parties reflects strong ideological stability of Israeli public opinion. The Jewish public has shown very little change in ideological trends for over a decade: just over half consider themselves to be right-wing, around 25-28 percent call themselves centrists, and roughly 15 percent consider themselves left-wing.

The two ideological wings actually combine categories of firm and moderate right, or firm and moderate left. Centrists commonly show left-leaning trends on basic issues around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, such as supporting a two-state solution. They also think like the left on religion and state issues in Israel, but are often evenly divided over national identity issues, attitudes towards Arab citizens, and more far-reaching compromises with Palestinians.

Among Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, a large portion decline to identify ideologically. Those who do are twice as likely to identify as left-wing relative to Israeli Jews, close to those who identify as centrist, with a small portion who regularly identifying as right-wing. These descriptions are far less meaningful for Arab electoral trends, since the vast majority of votes go the Arab slates.

Does all this mean we can expect basically similar results to the last few cycles? Not quite. Several unknowns mitigate the apparent stability of attitudes.

First, Netanyahu may know how to stabilize governments, but no one can tame Israeli election cycles. In every campaign cycle going back decades, some parties either split apart, merge, or emerge as new contenders altogether. Other parties dwindle and die under the incrementally rising threshold of votes needed to enter Knesset – now 3.25 percent.

Former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz speaks at the annual World Zionist Conference, in Jerusalem on November 02, 2017. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz speaks at the annual World Zionist Conference, in Jerusalem on November 02, 2017. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90)

And that’s before even mentioning the people. Israeli elections have taken on the aura of a beauty pageant. The high speculation these days centers on former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who is being touted as the great white hope of — well, no one quite knows. It is unclear whether he is left, center, or right, or which party he might join. Further, the Israeli public tends to forget that there is always an ex-general-turned politician expected to sweep up seats, whose fortunes often fizzle even before the polls open. The numbers regarding Benny Ganz, what we call “scenario polling” should be taken with a large dose of caution.

On a more macro level, it is important to remember that until all parties and lists officially declare their participation in the election, all polls will be of limited value.

There is one trend to watch that might shake up the results: the center, defined in Israel very clearly as the parties who address social-economic themes. They are doggedly agnostic about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, other than requisite nationalist chest-beating when needed to prove their legitimacy to the Jewish-Israeli public.

Historically, center parties didn’t do well in Israel. As one example, the charismatic journalist-cum-politician Tommy Lapid led the small centrist party Shinui to its best result in 2003, with 15 seats. By the next cycle, the party split, crashed and burned.

Ministers Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Liberman and Moshe Kahlon (left to right) at the weekly cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, July 3, 2016. (Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/pool photo)
Ministers Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Liberman and Moshe Kahlon (left to right) at the weekly cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, July 3, 2016. (Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/pool photo)

By contrast, his son Yair formed a new party that won 19 seats in its very first election in 2013 and promptly entered the ruling coalition. The party tumbled to 11 seats in 2015, but the centrist camp grew – due to the formation of Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party. The latter was viewed as center-right by contrast to Lapid’s center-left. He won 10 seats, putting the total “centrist” camp at 21 seats – higher than ever and growing.

Watching focus groups, I often hear Israeli voters say they believe no one. Voters tend to operate under two working assumptions: that the right-wing security-based perspective vis-a-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has won out, and that a dead peace process means there is no point in voting for the left. Therefore, they feel increasingly that they might as well vote for parties that address their personal material situation.

There are many more issues to cover and I will address them in future articles: Netanyahu’s legal situation, turnout dynamics, the impact of a potential war.

For now, the bottom line for understanding the election is to remain cautious when reading surveys, remember the overall ideological stability of the Israeli electorate, and wait for the final lineup of candidates. There may be a small glimmer of possibility for change.

Correction: The original version of this article accidentally omitted Kulanu from the list of parties in the current Netanyahu-led coalition.