The votes are not yet final from the 1 November 2022 Israeli general election, but the outcome is quite clear. The right-wing bloc of parties supporting current opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu will have won a manufactured majority. Media are calculating the bloc’s combined seats at 65 out of 120. Yet the bloc currently has just 48.1% of the votes.* That is actually lower than the clear majority of the vote they got in April, 2019, yet at that election the result was deadlock while this one will produce a majority coalition government. What explains the difference? Coordination.
The reason for the manufactured majority in this election, despite a nationwide proportional representation electoral system, is coordination failure. The strategic choices of political leaders and voters in both the left and the Arab political camps have made Netanyahu’s impending return to government possible. On the left, Labor has barely cleared the 3.25% legal threshold, with 3.56% as of now (around 20:30 Israel time), while Meretz is below, at 3.19% (and its percentage has declined in recent hours as more votes are counted*). Even if–as appears unlikely–Meretz ultimately clears, and thus wins 4 seats instead of zero, it would not drop the right below 61 seats. For that to happen, it would also be necessary that all three Arab lists in this election cleared the threshold. But Balad is sitting on only 3.03%, so that looks at least as unlikely.
Had Balad stayed in alliance with the remnant Joint List (i.e., Hadash-Tal, which won 3.93%) and had Meretz either won just enough to clear the threshold or formed an alliance list with Labor, as Interim PM Yair Lapid openly encouraged, the additional seats won by these camps surely would have blocked Netanyahu from winning. Then there either would have been some unexpected coalition possibilities emerging, or another election next spring, with Lapid of the Yesh Atid party remaining Prime Minister during that time (and until a new government eventually formed). Thus it is hard to exaggerate just how much the left and Arab political camps blew it–assuming blocking the return of Netanyahu was important to them. (Frankly, I doubt Balad’s leaders care, although many of their voters must, and leftist leaders and voters alike surely do.)
I should add here that the third piece of the former Joint List, Ra’am, which backed the outgoing government, cleared the threshold easily with the highest vote percentage of any of the three Arab lists (4.34%). This appears to be vindication for leader Mansour Abbas’s consistent message over the last two years of normalizing Arab participation in national governance; in 2021 Ra’am had 3.79%. I will count this as one piece of good news from the election.
In some respects, this year’s outcome is a mirror image of the first of this recent run of frequent elections, in April 2019. In that first of two elections in 2019, the right suffered a coordination failure when New Right fell just below the threshold, with 3.22% of the vote. In that election, the combined right-wing vote was 55.4% if we include Yisrael Beiteinu or 51.44% if we do not. But the non-Likud, non-Haredi right was splintered: Union of Right-Wing Parties (3.70), Kulanu (3.54), New Right (3.22), and Zehut (2.74). Thus the right bloc had only 60 seats, or with Yisrael Beiteinu (4.01% of the vote) included, 65. Had New Right cleared the threshold, the combination without YB would have been 61 or 62, depriving YB leader Avigdor Lieberman of the pivotal position. (It was only after the election that he earnestly said no to the coalitions with Haredi parties that he had willingly been part of up to a few months before.) Thus coordination failure on the right probably prevented a right-Haredi government from forming in 2019, and kicked off the four-election cycle of deadlock and attempted “unity” governments.
In this year’s election, coordination on the right returned in a big way. The non-Likud, non-Haredi right was almost entirely consolidated on one list, that of Religious Zionism, which won 10.31% of the vote and probably 14 seats. There will be much consternation and condemnation over the prominent role that RZ leaders Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir will play in the likely new government. Much of it will be deserved. They are genuine extremists. However, it will be portrayed as a far-right surge when it really only is the non-Likud, non-Haredi electorate converging on its only viable option. Consider that in the 2021 election, RZ won 6 seats (5.12% of the vote) and Yamina won 7 seats (6.21% of the vote). That is 13 seats and just over 11% of the vote. This time the remaining option will have actually lost vote share while picking up (apparently) one seat. It is not a far-right surge, it is a right-wing coordination success. To these votes we could also add Jewish Home, now led by Ayalet Shaked, which won 1.16% of the votes–far below the threshold, but suggesting the combined vote share for this more-rightwing-than-Likud flavor of politics basically did not change.
It is quite striking how much of the movement from utter coordination failure on the right in 2019 to smashing coordination success in 2022 is the story of Naftali Bennet and Ayalet Shaked and their supporters. Their gambit in 2019 was that there was political space for a strongly right-wing option that is less tied to the old religious Zionist parties, represented at the time by the Jewish Home alliance (in which both were prominent figures and Netanyahu coalition partners). But for a very small number of votes, they could have been vindicated, but instead the last three and a half years turned this on its head, with the list of Religious Zionism commandeering this segment of the vote in 2022. On the way here, Bennet and, more reluctantly, Shaked tried another gambit, teaming up with Yesh Atid, Labor, Meretz, Ra’am, and Yisrael Beiteinu (among others) on the “change” government. Bennet was at the time leader of Yamina, which did not even run in this election. We could say it was hardly a party at all, in terms of the disciplined outfit we’d expect of a party providing the prime minister, as it did for the initial period of the government formed in 2021. It only shed members of Knesset and voters from the moment it announced the coalition. And now its voters have a home and a government, in the form of the most hardline party to have entered any of Netanyahu’s cabinets to date.
As for the left, Labor and Meretz refused to forge an alliance. This is understandable, but also blew up on them in a big way. They had run on an alliance list in the March, 2020, election and won only 7 seats and less than 6% of the votes. Compare that to 11 seats (and over 9% of the vote) in September, 2019, for their separate lists and then in 2021, 13 seats (and combined 10.7% of votes) for their again separate lists. Thus they have reason to believe that together they are worth less than the sum of their parts–conditional on their two separate parts clearing the threshold! In this election they combine for only 6.75% of votes and 4 seats–8 if Meretz ultimately squeaks over the threshold as now seems unlikely. It was a gamble, and it looks to have failed.
There are already recriminations against Lapid for not properly “managing” the center-left bloc (see under “cannibalistic pig“). But he tried to encourage a Labor-Meretz alliance and was rebuffed. I am not in position to say whether he could have done more to prevent center-left voters from choosing him over his threshold-challenged partners. It seems to me that’s not really the bigger party leader’s job, even though it was obviously in his interests that both win seats. Once the Labor and Meretz leaders concluded they could clear the threshold running alone, it was incumbent on them to deliver their votes.
Frankly, it seems that Labor and Meretz are yesterday’s news, and they should either merge or fold. The future of the center-left is Yesh Atid. Over seven elections in just under a decade, Yesh Atid has proven it is not just another centrist flash in the pan, but a serious option with staying power and organization. It is, nonetheless, unlikely ever to be the head of a center-left/Arab government. As the 2021 experience shows, you need a party of the right to cross over and make that a majority (or you’d need Ra’am or some other cooperation-minded Arab party to supplant Hadash-Tal and Balad). It is not clear where another right-wing splinter could come from; it won’t be from the right of Likud, and there just isn’t a “soft right” anymore to its immediate left. Maybe after Netanyahu finally leaves the scene there will be. The future of the center-left is thus probably mainly as a potential coalition partner to a post-Netanyahu Likud, and it would be better for it to be one strong partner than to be fragmented into Yesh Atid and two minnows farther to the left (if they both could clear again in a future contest), plus whatever becomes of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White. (The latter is the real “soft right” in the current party system, but is already firmly tied to the center-left as of now.)
Many supporters of proportional representation in the US, Canada, and elsewhere speak as if PR means no need for strategic electoral behavior. The Israeli experience of 2019 through 2022 shows the folly of such belief. Coordination is still important, especially if there are any significant contra-proportional features to the PR system. And usually there are–sometimes in the form of moderate district magnitude, and sometimes–as in Israel–in the form of a moderately high legal threshold, despite nationwide PR. The right had the coordination this time that it lacked in 2019, whereas the left and Arab sectors in this election did not. And thus a bloc will have the parliamentary majority and government despite not having won a majority of the vote.
Update: With around 99% counted, it is now 64 seats (53.3%) on 48.4% of the vote. Meretz shrank farther from the threshold and is at 3.16%.