Israel government update and the likelihood of a 2021b election

It has been some time since I did an update on the election and government-formation process in Israel, 2021 (or, as I called it, 2021a, giving away my expectation that a 2021b was likely). The election was on 23 March, and as all readers likely know, it was the fourth election since an early call of elections was legislated at the end of 2018.

Since the March election, the government-formation process has been playing out in its usual manner. President Reuven Rivlin received recommendations from party leaders about who should be tasked to form a government. As expected, no candidate had recommendations from parties totaling 61 or more seats, but incumbent PM Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) had more than opposition leader Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), so he got the first nod. As everyone pretty much understood would happen, Netanyahu failed to cobble together a government. Arguably he did not even try very hard, “negotiating” mainly through press statements trying to shame leaders of small right-wing parties to rejoin his bloc. So, again as expected, Lapid received the mandate to try. And he most certainly has been trying hard. But as I write this he has one week remaining before his time expires.* If Lapid’s mandate expires with no government to present to the Knesset, there is a period in which any Knesset member can be nominated to be the PM via 61 signatures from members of the Knesset. However, with two blocs (using the term loosely) having both failed to win 61 seats, such a path to a government is highly unlikely to work.

The attempt to strike an agreement with Yamina, whose head Naftali Bennett would have gone first as PM, with Lapid taking over after a year (based on the same Basic Law amendments that the aborted Netanyahu–Gantz rotation was to follow), seemed close to fruition as the second week of May began. It would have been a strange government, given Bennett’s party won only 7 seats to Lapid’s 17, and because it would span nearly the entire Israeli political spectrum, including one Arab party (most likely as an outside supporter to a minority government, not as a full cabinet partner). Then once Hamas decided to escalate ongoing tensions in Jerusalem (including over things such as those I was writing about a decade ago) by firing their terrorist rockets directly at the capital city on Jerusalem Day, the ensuing war led Bennett to get cold feet and abandon a plan that apparently was all but final. On the other hand, he apparently also never quite ruled out returning to the plan. For instance, he never said in front of cameras that the deal was off, and there was a letter on 20 May from major activists in Yamina calling for the party to avoid another election and back an anti-Bibi government. Just today Bennett has supposedly told Likud he will return to talking with Lapid about forming a government if Netanyahu can’t form one (which he can’t).

So the “change” government remains a possibility even now (given the cessation of hostilities after 11 days) and may remain so right up until Lapid’s mandate expires. Frankly, it was always uphill to to form this proposed government, and would be a challenge for it to last if it did form. Yet it is the only current option, aside from another election later this year. Bennett has claimed numerous times that he will do everything he can to prevent another election. He has claimed a lot of things, so no one really can claim to know what he will do. (This is sometimes a good negotiating tactic, although it seems to have failed badly for Bennett, and in any case it is a terrible trait in a governing partner.) Although it is easy to mock Bennett for his flip-flops, we should acknowledge that he is in a genuinely difficult place. He has spent the last several years carving out a niche for his party to the right of Likud on security matters, so he can’t appear too eager to form a government with left-wing parties and reliant on Arab support. Thus even if he has intended all along to back such a government–and who knows–he and his no. 2, Ayalet Shaked, would need to make a good show of “leaving no stone unturned to form a nationalist government” before signing up to a deal with Lapid and Labor, Meretz, and Ra’am.

The bottom line is that the election produced a genuine stalemate. Even if Yamina sides with Netanyahu, that is not a majority without Ra’am, the Islamist party that broke off from the Joint List and has a pragmatic leader, Mansour Abbas, who seeks to be relevant in Israeli politics (unlike the Joint List itself). Such a government would also need the Religious Zionist list, which has said repeatedly it opposes any cooperation with Ra’am. The parties we are talking about here for a potential right-wing government are Likud (30 seats), the Haredi parties–Shas (9) and UTJ (7)–Yamina (7), plus Religious Zionist (6). These reach only 59 seats, hence the need for Ra’am (4) to back it; and, yes, Ra’am is certainly a right wing party within Arab Israeli politics, particularly on matters of social/religious policy. There is also New Hope (6), the party formed by Gideon Sa’ar and other Likud defectors. Obviously, if they joined, it would obviate the need to have the backing of Ra’am. However, Sa’ar has said over and over that he will not back Netanyahu. The entire reason his party formed was to offer an option for Likud without Bibi. While one should never rule anything out, and reports occasionally circulate that he is talking with Bibi, he looks like he just might mean it when he says no.

The “change” government would be Lapid (17), Blue and White (8), Labor (7), Yisrael Beiteinu (7), Meretz (6) New Hope (6), plus 6** from Yamina. Together, that “bloc” of left and right parties would have 58 seats, hence the inability to form a government without backing of Ra’am (who remains “brave” in evidently being willing to do a deal despite the violence of recent weeks). If Yamina is really out of this group, then that leaves it on only 51 seats, ten seats short. Yes, the two Arab lists just happen to combine for 10 seats, but it is highly unlikely that the Joint List is going to be part of such a government. And it is just as unlikely that the either or both Haredi parties are going to defect from the Bibi bloc to lend Lapid a hand.

I concluded my preview of the last election by saying, ” I don’t see a government being formed from this mess… the safe call is continuing deadlock and a 2021b election being necessary.” While that almost proved too pessimistic as of early May, and maybe yet will be shown to be the wrong call, it still could end up that way.

Finally, because this is Fruits and Votes, I want to highlight just how crazy the fragmentation was in the 2021(a) election. Throughout the three elections of 2019-20 the party system had reached a period of being almost exactly as fragmented as expected for its electoral system, as emphasized in my chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Israeli Politics and Society. In my post-election blog post, I even called the 2019a election “a totally normal election” based on the effective number of seat-winning parties being just over five and the largest party having 29% of the seats. These are almost precisely what we expect from the Seat Product Model (SPM) for such a high seat product (120-seat assembly elected in a single district). The indicators stayed in that general range for the next two elections. But check out the disruption of that trend in 2021! This graph is an updated version of the plots in the Handbook chapter (also a version of this was shown in the just-linked earlier post following 2019a).

The plots, for four party-system indicators, show lines for observed values over time with the expected values from the SPM marked by the horizontal solid line in each plot. The dashed line marks the mean for the entire period, through 2021a. Vertical lines mark changes in electoral-system features other than the district magnitude and assembly size–specifically formula changes or threshold increases.

Look at those spikes in the plots of the top row! The number of seat-winning lists (not parties, per se, given that many lists actually are alliances of two or more parties) jumped to 13, and the effective number to 8.52, almost as high as in 1999 (8.69). In 1999, a key reason for the spike was the directly elected PM, which freed voters to vote sincerely rather than for their preferred PM party in Knesset elections. In 2021, it is a product of the breakup of Blue and White (which happened as soon as the “unity” government was formed), the breakaway New Hope, the split of the Labor-Meretz list that contested the 2020 election, and Ra’am splitting from the (Dis)Joint List.

In the bottom row at left we see the corresponding collapse in the size of the largest party, although not quite to the depths reached a few times previously. In the lower right, we see a new record for lowest deviation from proportionality, thanks to no parties just missing the threshold (as happened in 2019a spectacularly and to a lesser degree in the subsequent election).

If there is a 2021b, will the fragmentation again be this high? The number of seat-winning lists could very well turn downward again as some parties re-enter pre-election pacts. On the other hand, as long as the Bibi-or-no cleavage continues to cross-cut all the others, it is entirely possible that fragmentation will remain “unnaturally” high. Barring Bennett and Lapid getting back together in the next week, we will find out later this year. And if that happens, then in the meantime, Bibi would continue benefitting from the stalemate.


* By coincidence, Rivlin’s successor as president will be elected by the Knesset the same day Lapid’s current mandate to form a government expires.

** Yamina won 7 seats but one of the party’s MKs has said he will not support the government that was being negotiated with Lapid. Today he said his position has not changed.

17 thoughts on “Israel government update and the likelihood of a 2021b election

  1. Israeli media are reporting that Lapid and Bennett have reached a deal. Yamina is meeting tomorrow and Ayelet Shaked, Bennett’s #2, is said to be onboard. Bennett would serve as PM until September 2023, then Lapid would replace him.

    I certainly never would have imagined that the government to replace Benjamin Netanyahu would be headed by Naftali Bennett, and include Avigdor Lieberman and Gideon Sa’ar as well as Meretz and Ra’am. I would say stranger things have happened, but to be honest I am not sure they have.

    I am somewhat disappointed that the eventual resolution won’t include electoral reform, though I’m also not sure what reforms would actually make a difference. Returning to the direct election of the prime minister might actually be the most feasible alternative, given that there is now a constructive vote of no confidence in place that wasn’t there in the 1990s. I can’t imagine a government this ideologically polarized surviving fro long, so I expect they’ll be back in the same place sooner rather than later.

    • How would direct elections for PM would work with a constructive vote of no confidence? Would a vote of no confidence result in new elections for PM, or the person designated by the vote being appointed PM?

      • It would depend on how the law is structured. When they had direct elections, there was no constructive vote of no confidence and any no confidence vote would also result in a dissolution and new elections.

        The current constructive no confidence vote requires an alternative coalition to already be formed and to garner 61 votes in the Knesset. However, the initial investiture vote just requires a relative majority. So if you just replace the investiture vote with a direct election, then there wouldn’t be new elections if there were a constructive no confidence vote (but I could also see there being potential problems with the legitimacy of a new government that, while it holds a majority in the directly-elected Knesset, didn’t win a direct election).

        Honestly, it might not be a terrible idea to have a conditional direct election where there would only be a direct election to PM if, following a Knesset election, no majority is formed within a specified period.

      • On the question of direct election with constructive vote, something like this is actually a live proposal in Israel. I do not know if it will be part of the plans of this government or not. The idea is that the head of the largest party becomes PM automatically, unless a majority of MKs chooses someone else.

        I do not know the provisions in the proposal for a later replacement of an elected PM. I think it would be “constructive” and not necessitate a new election, but I am not 100% certain of that.

        I can’t say I would advocate such a plan, but it is not obviously terrible.

      • The obvious electoral reform is either a districted PR system (with an average M in the 5-10 range and a larger assembly) or else a two-tier PR system with smaller basic-tier M (could even be MMP, provided safeguards against dummy lists).

        So “obvious” that no one wants to take it seriously!

        (Note also that a plan as discussed above for direct election and constructive vote is not, strictly speaking, “electoral reform” because it assumes the electoral system for Knesset remains unchanged.)

      • 1.Having the largest list’s leader become PM is fundamentally different from a direct election for a number of reasons, chiefly that there can be no ticket-splitting.

        2.Effectively, having the largest list’s leader become PM is establishing a different default than new elections than a failure to form a government. It would actually be a pretty big departure – it would make a minority government much more likely. It would probably solve the failure to form a govt, but with the result that governments would usually not have majority status.

        3.There are alternative ways of changing the default outcome if no govt is formed:
        -give the incumbent govt the right to continue indefinitely
        -have the president appoint a ‘neutral’ caretaker govt until a govt is formed
        -have the president appoint as PM whoever gets more MK recommendations (effectively having the Knesset elect the PM by simple rather than absolute majority)
        In all cases, the Knesset could replace the default govt through a constructive no-confidence vote; unless the rules for calling an election an election are changed (and entrenched), the Knesset would also be able to call a new election, but this would not be the default if no-one can form a majority govt.
        Obviously I’m not seriously proposing all these options, I’m just noting that they are logical possibilities. I think the last one would be the most realistic, as it deviates the least from the current system – it no longer requires a majority, but still requires negotiation for someone to become PM. I think it would also lead to much more viable and productive ‘default’ govts than the ‘largest list’ rule. (To make it even more moderate, you could make this rule only go in after a second election is caused by a failure to form a govt after an election).

        4.A term limit on PMs would fundamentally lack teeth unless entrenched, just like the limit on number of ministers which was legislated the first time Lapid was in govt.

        5.I’ve come to the conclusion any further moves from proportionality in Knesset elections would be unwise unless a) major parts of the Basic Law are properly entrenched or b) you establish an upper house (with real veto on non-money bills) elected by pure PR in tandem with making the lower house less proportional.

      • I don’t really think automatic PM to head of largest list is that different from direct election, BUT the rest of that is true: the absence of ticket splitting is a fundamental difference from what Israel had in 1996-2001.

        I also agree with all the other points JD raises in that comment.

      • Also, to clarify what I said earlier, I do not really think a reduction of the seat product to something in the range of 1,400 to 4,000 (current is 14,400) is too fundamental a departure from proportionality. In fact, I would prefer it, provided there would be no or much lower national threshold, to the current 14,400 but a moderately high threshold.

        Having said that, I’d probably advocate a two-tier PR system, roughly on the Danish model.

      • I don’t understand how a Danish system would change the balance of power substantially. If you have a regional tier (say, the 6 districts with settlements attached to the nearest district) electing 90 MKs and then 30 leveling MKs, and continue to use d’Hondt with surplus vote agreements to determine seats, wouldn’t the end result be basically the same exact thing as a single national tier, give or take a seat or two?

        I also can’t see MMP causing a significant change to the status quo, as geographic segregation would likely result in each of the 5 major socio-political factions (Arab interests, center-left, anti-Haredi (and now increasingly anti-Bibi) right, pro-Bibi/religious Zionist right, and Haredi interests) being in a dominant position in different regions of the country (with the possible exception of the anti-Bibi right), limiting any incentive toward consolidation. And I can’t even imagine how big of a headache drawing districts would be like (even leaving out the ethnic and religious factors, you also have a large number of non-contiguous local government areas within Israel proper, on top of how you even begin to consider how to include the settlements and whether/how you include outposts).

        My gut says you’d need a really small magnitude without any nationwide compensation to try to consolidate the number of factions, but at that point you begin to lose proportionality and representation. Perhaps Irish/NI-style STV in constituencies of 3-6 could be worth considering, although the candidate-based voting would be a complete 180 from the closed lists Israelis are used to.

      • “wouldn’t the end result [of a two-tier system] be basically the same exact thing as a single national tier, give or take a seat or two?”

        Not according to the (extended) Seat Product Model, no. The basic-tier size and district magnitude matter for the shape of the party system, even with full compensation via the upper tier.

        It also depends on what one’s goal is. If one really wants to “change the balance of power substantially” then one needs a simple system with much lower mean M (or a bonus provision, or something more large-party favoring). That is not the goal, at least of any recommendation I would make. I agree with JD that preserving a high degree of proportionality is crucial.

        Also note that any two-tier system injects a degree of local representation and personal accountability that is lacking in the current system, without sacrificing proportionality. It also makes it more feasible to introduce open or flexible lists, but it introduces beneficial changes in how MKs think of their constituents even if closed lists are retained.

      • I guess my question is whether there’s something about two-tier PR itself that is causal to lowering the effective number of parties, or whether it’s more coincidental. It seems the sample size of nations using two-tier PR is quite small (Austria, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Romania from 1990-2004 and since 2016, and Guyana are the only ones I know), and Guyana was the only country of the group which lowered, rather than raised, their seat product in adopting the system (and details on the pre-2001 Guyanese system are a little hard to find, so that might not even be true).

        While I think there are absolutely benefits in having local representation and more direct accountability for MKs, I think any impact would be in the medium- to long-term and, at least initially, voters would continue to engage in the same voting behavior and results would be as fragmented. I don’t know whether accountability alone, without any direct impact on reducing fragmentation or making coalition formation easier, would justify replacing the electoral system (particularly in a country where any sort of district-making would be as fraught as I presume it would be in Israel).

        I do think it could be interesting to see a system where pre-electoral coalitions can be formed using the Chilean system (more explicit than the current surplus vote agreements because these would be grouped together on the ballot and allow more than two lists to cooperate) and where the PM candidate of the largest list is elected unless a 61+ member alternative is formed. That would also allow for open lists with more accountability and encourage at least some consolidation of the current 5 main ideological factions into 2-3 without impacting the proportionality of the electoral system.

    • “I would say stranger things have happened, but to be honest I am not sure they have.” Check the Inter-Party Government of Ireland formed in 1948. Everyone but Fianna Fail. A patchwork collection of political parties. There were young and old politicians, Free Staters and conservatives (Fine Gael), republicans and socialists (Clann na Poblachta), left-wing Labour Party and more centrist National Labour, and agrarian populists (Clann na Talmhan),

      • The Japanese government formed in 1993 is a contender for such a “strange” government, too. Everyone but the LDP (by far the largest party with about 44% of the seats) and the Communists, and including some small parties that were led by defectors from the LDP. Its main accomplishment was the electoral reform. The government did not last long, but the new electoral system has lasted.

    • One last go on this.* The extended SPM for two-tier PR tells us that the basic tier seat product (average magnitude times the total number of seats in that tier) shapes the party system, which is then inflated by the upper tier, dependent on the latter tier’s size. In Votes from Seats we explain the logic and we show it works, on average, when we break down actual results by tier.

      So, no, they are not just the same as nationwide PR, even though they have nationwide compensation. The districts and basic-tier size still limit fragmentation of the party system, presumably because there is some value both elites and voters place on having basic-tier representation.

      I am continuing to work on this, and hope to learn more about how (and why!) it works. But there is clearly something to it.

      (*This is meant as a reply to Christopher Burge, at 02/06/2021 at 12:47 pm; it is sometimes hard to locate the correct “reply” button when a thread gets long, at least for me.)

    • After a lot of hemming and hawing over possible defections, the change bloc has verbal commitments from 61 MKs (including the two most likely defectors from Yamina/New Hope) and is set to be sworn in on Sunday.

      They also are considering more significant voting reforms, including “a shift to a regional voting system, holding party primaries on the day of general elections and permitting absentee voting for Israelis abroad”, on top of a two consecutive term limit for the premiership, followed by a four-year cooling off period. I presume “party primaries on the day of the elections” is just journalist speak for “open list proportional representation,” but I haven’t read the coalition agreements so I’m not certain.

      I do think how Israeli politics moved from a 60/50/10 center-left/right/Arab split to a 38/72/10 split in just 15 years has been under-investigated. It really is shocking in the historical context that a coalition this broad, including all of the center-left, has this narrow of a majority (although perhaps 2006 was more of a post-disengagement abnormality than a normal election).

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