For the upcoming Israeli election, divisions on the left are not the problem

Israel’s general election has been set for 9 April. This election is both “late” and “early”. The term is four years, and this election will be more than four years after the last election (which was in March, 2015). Yet under Israel’s Basic Law provision on election dates, the date for 2019 could have been as late as November. Nonetheless, the Knesset passed a bill in late December setting the election date.

All indications, at least for now, are that the Likud and its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, will remain at the head of the government following the election. Polls put Likud far ahead of the second party, which in many polls is a new entrant, Israel’s Resilience, founded by former IDF chief of staff, Benny Gantz. The real question is who will be the coalition partners. Both the governing “nationalist camp” and the opposition feature numerous parties, as usual, but also splits, including several new entrants since the election was announced.

There is often poor understanding of how Israeli politics works. To a degree, that’s understandable, as it is a complex political scene (and society). However, there is really no excuse for a major publication like The Economist getting it as wrong as it did in its 3 January edition.

The author of the piece shows a poor understanding of the dynamics of proportional representation and parliamentary government, mistakenly claiming that the center-left could win if only it were not divided into so many different parties. I want to use this claim as a foil, and illustrate why it is so mistaken.

Basically, the reason there are so many parties in Israel is two-fold: there are real socio-political divisions and there is a quite extreme proportional-representation system. Because of the high proportionality, divisions within a potential governing bloc are quite unlikely to be the reason such a bloc fails ultimately to end up in government. (Yes, there is a moderately high threshold that can cause some wasting of votes. We will come back to that.) A government needs to command the votes of one more than half the Knesset (61 of 120); no party will win a majority (none ever has), and so the process of forming a government is one of post-electoral bargaining. Whoever can get 61 votes in the Knesset (assembly) forms the government. A minority government–tolerated by some Knesset parties that don’t have a formal governing role–is theoretically possible, as it almost always is in a parliamentary democracy, but highly unlikely in Israel.

The Economist claimed that Netanyahu could be defeated if only the opposition would unite. The premise is based on two observations; they are true as far as they go, but that is not very far. First,

Under Mr Netanyahu, Likud has never received more than a quarter of the national vote. Yet it has dominated Israeli politics with the help of smaller nationalist and religious parties.

Second,

Were [opposition parties] running as one they would probably gather 40% of the vote, overtaking Likud.

The idea of a united center-left overtaking Likud is plausible, although 40% could be a stretch. Based on the aggregation of recent polls, all the opposition parties, not including Yisrael Beiteinu and the Joint List, come to an estimated 45.5 seats, which would be about 38%. So if all those parties formed one alliance list, they might get close to 40%. Moreover, is not out of the question that Yisrael Beiteinu (YB), which left the government in November, could join a center-left coalition. Even if they get to 40%, however, getting to the 61 seats needed for a majority remains a stretch. For one thing, it is virtually impossible to construct coalition scenarios around the Joint List being in. (The reasons why would be a topic for another thread; the short version is they would not accept if invited to join a governing coalition, which they won’t be.)

The problem is that this 38% or 40% might still not be enough, absent either a polling shift (or substantial error) in their favor or the defection of some party from the current bloc of governing parties, other than YB. If the Haredi (ultra-orthodox) parties joined them in government, that would be another 11.7 seats on the current polling estimate. So if we take the current opposition (minus Joint List), and add in YB and the two Haredi parties, we are at 45.5 + 4.5 + 11.7. Look, we made it to 61.7! A very bare majority, if the polls are spot-on. But not so fast.

While the Haredi parties have governed with left parties before, the broad center-left alliance the Economist is imagining includes at least one party that would be highly unlikely to go into government with the Haredi parties. Yesh Atid, currently polling at 12.7 seats, has as one of its core reasons for being the diminution of ultra-orthodox religious privileges in society; it successfully kept the Haredi parties out of government when it joined a coalition after the 2013 election. It is hard to imagine it agreeing to sit in a government with the Haredi parties (and vice versa). In fact, one of the reasons for the election being called when it was is that the government–again–failed to resolve the Haredi military draft issue, as required by the Supreme Court. It would not be any easier for a center-left-religious coalition to handle. Such a coalition could also be a problem for Meretz, which is a highly secular, left-wing party. YB, which gets most of its votes from the Russian community, is also closer to Yesh Atid on these issues, because of the official rabbinate’s rejection of many Russian immigrants’ Jewish status, although it has sat in nationalist-religious coalitions before, obviously.

Thus we see here already a reason why the Economist’s explanation for why the left won’t unite into a single alliance–“But none of the party leaders is prepared to serve as number two”–is insufficient. The opposition contains not only differences over who should be its leader, but also real divisions over what should be the course of action of the next government. A lot of the divisions may be personalities, but by no means all of them.

Nonetheless, let’s take the claim at face value. Let’s assume that there is an opposition alliance that, upon uniting, somehow not only does not lose any substantial share of its current voters because of pre-election compromises it has to make, but also is able to attract some voters from the right. It ends up with 48 seats (40%), while Likud has only 30 (25%). Is the most likely government–even with such a board alternative pre-electoral coalition able to start bargaining with the other parties–still one led by Likud? Yes, probably.

While it seems somewhat implausible that a pre-election alliance with 40% would be kept out of power if it was really 15 percentage points ahead of the largest list on the other side, any scenarios that have the center-left forming the next government have to get over the parliamentary arithmetic and real political issues mentioned already before they should be taken seriously.

Moreover, it is not as if the divisions on one side are occurring in a vacuum in which the other side does not exist or know what is happening. If, somehow, the center-left united and was polling at 40%, the right surely would respond with alliance-making of its own. While the various personalities in the smaller right-wing parties and in Likud clearly have a fair amount of contempt for one another, they arguably have fewer unbridgeable policy divisions than the center-left. In other words, if they were faced by a genuine threat of a united center-left, they’d almost certainly construct a more united right. We have seen it before: Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu put together a pre-election alliance in 2013, in part out of concern that Yesh Atid might surpass Likud in seats. While there is no procedural advantage to the largest party or list (just ask Tzipi Livni about the 2009 result), there is nonetheless political value in being first, or at least in not too far behind. Already, there are rumors that Likud and current center-right partner Kulanu may be negotiating a joint slate. (On current polling, that would combine for 34.3 seats, or just under 30%.)

Nonetheless, the bottom line is that, regardless of which list gets the most votes and seats, the government will be the one that can assemble a coalition consisting of at least 61 seats. And the simple fact is that advantage in votes falls to the broad right, not the left. There is no sense in which the divisions on the left are preventing it from winning. This is a proportional system, and so divisions are not costing any potential bloc seats, as they would in a majoritarian system.

But, hold on, what about that threshold? Is it possible that the left could deprive itself of seats because some of its parties fall below the threshold? If that happens, then it does indeed waste votes and potentially displace some seats to the right. So, yes, it is possible. The threshold is 3.25%, and at least one party on the center-left is below that (Livni’s HaTenua). However, Livni clearly is going to take part in some new alliance, now that she has been booted in an especially insulting fashion out of the Zionist Union that she formed with Labor before the 2015 election. Besides, this was not a claim the Economist piece made; it does not even mention the threshold.

One new party that has entered, Gesher (headed by current MK and YB-defector Orly Levy-Abekasis) is perilously close to the threshold. However, it is rather likely it will end up joining some pre-electoral bloc. There is also the newly registered party, Telem, of former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who has declared he will not sit in a coalition with Netanyahu. Lists, including any alliances, need not be finalized till late February. (And, yes, this will be a general election in more ways than one.)

Moreover, it is not only the left that has to worry about the threshold. Netanyahu was sufficiently worried to propose lowering the threshold before the election. This was after the Knesset had passed the bill to set the election and “disperse” itself, but before the split in one of his current nationalist governing partners, Bayit Yehudi. The effort on the threshold failed, but it shows that it is not just the opposition that has divisions that could cost it.

The remnant of Bayit Yehudi is currently below the threshold. With 2.8 seats, it is about 1.2 short (the 3.25% threshold means usually the minimum size of a party in the Knesset will be 4 seats). It will probably align with one or more other very minor ultranationalist parties, but even in such an alliance, it could still be left out.

The defectors from Bayit Yehudi, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, have formed a party to be called New Right. It is currently on 8.8 seats. It will seek to cement the Judea & Samaria settler vote and others opposed to any territorial concessions (helped by recruiting Caroline Glick to the list); it will remain a natural partner for Likud even as it seeks to differentiate itself both from Likud and from Bayit Yehudi. Yet even without the remnant of Bayit Yehudi passing the threshold, the current coalition partners are at about 59 seats. So now we are up against one other critical fact of the Israeli party system: there are various parties on the center-left that would be willing to join a Likud-led government. In fact, of all the parties on the center-left (not counting the Joint List, which will not be in any government), the only one I am sure would not join Likud is Meretz, and if we take Ya’alon at his word, whatever list he is on won’t back Netanyahu. (As mentioned before, it is also hard to see Yesh Atid in a government with the Haredi parties, but the party has been in a Likud-led coalition before.)

It just very hard to see a realistic scenario for a non-Likud government, absent a major shift in public preferences. Note that I have not even mentioned yet the legal troubles facing Netanyahu. Could that lead to a shift towards the center-left? Maybe. But don’t count on it. More likely, were the PM to be faced with charges before the election, he’d lose some votes to New Right. In fact, that could even be one of the reasons Bennett and Shaked made their move: their new party and its emerging platform could appeal broadly on the right in a way that the hardline orthodox religious (but not Haredi) components of Bayit Yehudi never would have.

To summarize, divisions on the left (or right) will not keep a camp from winning its full seat potential. Yes, if a party needed for the bloc to form a coalition majority falls below the threshold, that could displace seats to a rival bloc. However, parties that are at serious risk of not reaching 3.25% are likely to ally with other parties. It does not matter if the entire center-left unites; it still has less support in the public than the nationalist camp, and thus the latter would remain in stronger position to form a government. Moreover, it is not even clear that a united center-left would gain more votes than the separate parties can win, given the real divisions they reflect. To some degree this is true on the right, too (see the 2013 Likud Beitenu case), but the right is more cohesive as a potential (and current) government. Things could change between now and the election, but I would not count on it. Scenarios in which the current opposition will be the next government need a more credible story in their favor than just that the opposition needs to be more united.

9 thoughts on “For the upcoming Israeli election, divisions on the left are not the problem

  1. Really great explainer thread. I wonder about a point you made: the Joint List would never accept an invitation to join a coalition, even if it could somehow be offered (which is unlikely). But if Israel reaches a point where neither the left or right can put together a viable majority coalition, would the Joint List be willing to sign a confidence and supply agreement, and would it be offered? Wildly different contexts, obviously, but that is the current situation in Croatia, where minority MPs (elected through reservations) are propping up a right-wing minority government rather than have a new election be called.

    • For some reason the idea of a minority government propped through any kind of supply and confidence agreement runs contrary to Israeli political traditions and conventions. A party willing to prop a government and getting nothing in return is something unlikely in Israel.
      Specifically regarding a government that would be propped by the Joint List (or any of its component – it is made of 4 different parties that may yet run separately) – this idea is almost sure to rejected. It would be considered by many Israelis as relaying on parties that are against its very existence and therefore would not be accepted. It easy to see this a a racial discrimination against the Arab minority which is being shut out of government and it may be true but it should also be remembered that Labour, Meretz and even Likud have some non-Jewish Knesset members (and obviously also non-Jewish voters) among their ranks without that being considered a problem of any kind.
      The only time that happened was when the late Rabin headed the government with support of the mainly Arab communist party, after Shas left the coalition, between 94 and 95 – and it cost him a great deal if public support.
      Anyhow, as things stand today i would be very surprised if the Joint List would even consider voting to prop a Center-Left coalition (a sight not likely to be seen as well).

  2. Well, such are the travails of an apartheid government in a racist country where a third of the population isn’t allowed to vote. If there was an actual general election in Israel where *everyone* was allowed to vote, including the people under occupation, about a third of the Knesset would be Palestinian parties. As it would be in a real democracy. And Netenyahu would never manage to win the premiership. In fact, the only viable coalition would be a center-left coalition.

    Obviously Rabin’s government was doing just fine in 94-95… until he was assassinated by a right-wing terrorist.

    Things will just keep going downhill in Israel until they get rid of apartheid.

    • This is a blog post about an election in the actual state of Israel, not a hypothetical “one state” of Israel/Palestine that does not exist, is unlikely ever to exist, and that hardly anyone on either side actually wants to see exist.

      The “apartheid” claim is made only by those who do not understand Israel, do not understand apartheid, or do not understand either. But this is emphatically NOT the blog on which the point is up for debate, and I will not allow further comments discussing that subject. There are other blogs where one can have that discussion, should one be so inclined.

  3. It’s not as if a cordon sanitaire around undesirable parties is some crazy or unusual feature in a political system, though generally they exist to exclude racists from power rather than helping them hold on; also, the criteria for exclusion are normally ideological or political- in this case they’re quite obviously ethnic. So it’s really quite simple: the left is indeed at a serious disadvantage in forming government In Israel, but the MAIN reason. is that a fifth of its parliamentary strength is deemed per se illegitimate due to (and seemingly due only to) it being Arab.

    It does remind me of the last couple of Croatian elections and the role of the national minority reps. For background, Croatia’s parliament has 140 regularly elected MPs plus 8 MPs that are elected by various national communities – 3 for Serbs, 1 for Slovaks, 1 for Roma, 1 for Italians etc. They generally keep out of the government formation process but end up support the government during their term, a perfectly sensible approach as far as being able to offer concrete benefits and services to their constituencies. However, the last couple of elections finished on a razor’s edge between the left and right blocs and for the first time the minorities were actively courted by the blocs to help them obtain a majority, to the predictable howls consternation about whether “those people” ought to decide who should be in power in Croatia.

    Although the scale and severity of their respective minoritys issue are quite different, we can see that they both exhibit the same nationalist enervation at the very idea of ethnic minorities participating in politics in any but the most carefully circumscribed scenarios. Of course, I sould note that Croatia forcibly expelled most of its Serb citizens in the 90s which I suppose is the desired but unspoke endgame in Israel also (and Turkey, Romania) etc.

    • I’m not sure Israel is quite in the same position as Croatia yet, for a handful of reasons. In Croatia, both the left and the right have been willing to use minority legislators/parties as coalition members, even if they aren’t really willing to commit to supporting minority-benefiting policies. At the same time, there is a willingness in Croatia among minority parties/leaders to work with mainstream parties, even without guarantees that such cooperation will lead to meaningful policy movement. If I’m reading Matthew’s point correctly, the problem in Israel, as far as integrating Arab parties into mainstream politics, is that neither side is willing to work with the other. That seems to me a very different set of circumstances. But Israeli politics also hasn’t reached the point of unworkable coalitions that Croatia has, and I wonder if that might change the dynamic.

      • Yes, that is correct. It is mutual unwillingness, not just a “cordon sanitaire” drawn by the Zionist parties. I believe I posted about this during the 2015 campaign: at some point there was some public feeler from someone in the Zionist Union (the now-disbanded alliance of Labor and HaTenua) about cooperation after the election with the Joint List, and leader of the Joint List immediately shot the idea down. They simply have no intention of having to co-govern with the Zionist parties of left or right.

        As Andy notes, there are indeed many examples in other democracies, particularly Communist parties during the Cold War, but also with some ultra-nationalist parties nowadays like the AfD in Germany.

        These analogies are not bad ones, actually. The parties in the Joint List include Communists, Arab nationalists, and Islamists (among other tendencies, which probably explains why they have announced a split since I posted the above entry). They clearly belong in the category of “anti-system parties” to use the general term that Lijphart and other authors have used to describe certain tendencies found in some democratic party systems.

        It is worth noting that their non-participation in government does not rule out their cooperating with other parties at times in the legislative process. Sheri Oz did a good overview some years ago of the activities of Hanin Zoabi (who is otherwise quite radical, and I might note also not returning to the next Knesset). Sheri, who is very much part of the nationalist right in Israel (she is supporting the New Right party), notes with respect to the legislative activities of MK Zoabi: “to look at the list of bills she has initiated or helped promote, we see someone who is very involved in this country and the welfare of its citizens. Suddenly I felt that there is a Hanin Zoabi not too many people are aware of.”

        (Sheri’s post about Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List in 2015, is also interesting.)

  4. Pingback: Israel 2019 update: fragmentation on the right | Fruits and Votes

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