“Instability” in Israeli politics?

I was asked to offer some remarks on current “instability” in Israeli politics.* Instead, I am going to argue that Israeli politics suffers from too much stability—at least at the level of party and electoral politics. The fact that Israel underwent three elections between April, 2019, and March, 2020, might seem to imply political instability. So might the government recently formed, with its unwieldy power-sharing provisions and the parties’ need to reform constitutional provisions (Basic Laws) in order, at last, to prevent what could have been a fourth election within two years.

However, if we go a little deeper, there are two aspects of fundamental stability that have led the country’s politics to this current situation. First is the fact that a right-wing nationalist bloc of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and the two Haredi (ultra-orthodox) parties, usually also joined by an ultra-nationalist and religious-Zionist party (currently Yamina), has been unwilling to break up in order to facilitate government-formation. Likud and the Haredi factions function almost like one party nowadays, even though they run as three separate ones in elections.

The second factor is the persistence of anti-Zionist ideology among the Arab parties, who in their alliance known as the Joint List, have emerged as a (potentially) powerful force able to command about 12% of the Knesset seats. One can hardly ask parties representing the Arab sector to be Zionist, but if they would cease being opposed to the very nature of the political system (or be replaced by more pragmatic parties), they could participate in governments and bring benefits back to their voters who polls show care much more about better public services and integration into Israeli society than about ideological goals or the wider Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

Because of these two aspects of excessive political stability (or we might say stasis), it proved impossible after the two elections of 2019 and almost impossible after the 2020 election for a government spanning the political center to form. Yet consider that in three elections within eleven months, the right-Haredi bloc headed by Netanyahu failed to win a majority of seats. It did especially badly, relative to the 2015 election, in the second election of 2019, held in September. It recovered only slightly this past March. Yet at the same time, the Blue & White electoral alliance headed by Benny Gantz and its potential coalition partners also failed to win a majority for an alternative government. Blue & White could have formed a government only with the cooperation of the Joint List—or else it needed the Likud.

In most parliamentary democracies with complex multiparty systems, what happens when no bloc of ideologically similar parties wins a majority of seats is that a coalition of the center forms, leaving the extremist parties of both left and right out. But owing in part to Netanyahu’s preoccupation with his own legal problems, he was unwilling to break up his loyal bloc. Meanwhile, many of Gantz’s secular and left-leaning allies were unwilling to enter a government with the Haredi parties due to sharp differences over issues of religion and state.

Only with the unwillingness of the key parties to go to fourth elections, particularly in the context of the covid-19 crisis, did such a center-right coalition (which excludes the far right Yamina, as well as the most secular components that had been included within Blue & White) finally form. They could have arrived at a similar destination much sooner if the right-Haredi bloc had been more flexible, and alternative governance options would be more feasible if the Arab bloc could be part of a government or of its Knesset support base.

In other words, Israeli politics would benefit from just a little bit more instability.

Before concluding, I want to add two final points—one on the institutional context and one looking ahead:

(1) It is not the case, as some commentators claim, that Israeli politics would be more stable if it would change its highly proportional electoral system. The country has about the number and relative size of parties we expect from the electoral system it has (based on mathematical models I have contributed to developing and testing). But it does not follow that the country would be better served by changing the system to reduce the number of parties. The system suits the country’s social divisions well. A more disproportional system would create more, not less instability, by making it less transparent how popular support would be turned into baragaining power in the Knesset and government.

(2) Will the current government last? The constitutional reforms that were passed as a condition of its formation make it likely that it will, at least for a while, by instituting a rotation in the Prime Minister position and making it harder than usual for the leader of one bloc to depose the other and break up the government. However, by August, it must pass a budget. If Netanyahu wants to prevent a budget deal, he probably can, and this would force an early election. Polls consistently show that the right-Haredi-ultranationalist bloc would win a majority if an election were held now. However, it is not clear that he would want such an outcome even if he could engineer it. All of Netanyahu’s coalition governments but one have had at least one party of the center-left in them in order to balance out the ultranationalist parties (and the farther right of his own Likud). The exception was the one formed after the 2015 election, which was a narrow right-wing government. And it was precisely his small right-wing partners who maneuvered to bring that government down, precipitating the first of these three recent elections when no election actually would have been due until November, 2019. Netanyahu may be quite happy with the deal he has now while his legal process slowly plays out. In other words, Israeli politics may be a good deal more stable than it appears to many observers.


* At an on-line meeting of Davis Faculty, scheduled for 5 July. In addition to drawing on several earlier posts on Israel at this blog (some of which are linked in this post), I also draw on my teaching of Israeli Politics at UC Davis, as recently as this past spring quarter.

The 35th Israeli government and Basic-Law revisions

Last week, Israel finally got a new government, after three elections in under a year, the most recent of which was March of this year.

And what a government it is! Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud will remain prime minister, with a planned rotation of the premiership to Benny Gantz in 18 months.

It is being referred to as a “unity government” but that is a strange term for a government, the formation of which led to the break-up of three of the multi-party alliances that contested the most recent election, most especially Gantz’s Blue and White list. Maybe just like with “grand coalition” in Germany and Austria, it is time to dispense with the term, “unity government,” for Israel.

The most recent Israeli governments to which the term applied were following the Knesset elections of 1984 and 1988. In these elections the two main parties (Likud and Labor) each had won around 40 or more seats and formed governments in which the two parties governed together. Unlike the European examples, the parties in the earlier Israeli examples also agreed to rotate the premiership (two years one party, two years the other), although this plan broke down during the second term of planned “unity”.

This new government has the rotation plan again, but in other respects, it is quite novel. For one thing, as alluded to already, one of the two main components of the agreement, Blue and White, split. The part headed by Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi has joined the government with Likud, but the part consisting of Yesh Atid (led by Yair Lapid) and Telem (led by Moshe Ya’alon) will go to opposition. Likud won 36 seats in the most recent elections and Blue and White 33. However, with the split, the governing portion of the latter brings only 18 seats to support the cabinet. Thus, unlike the previous “unity” governments, in this one the two main lists that are forming the cabinet and rotating the premiership do not have a majority of Knesset seats between them (they have 54, where a majority is 61.)

(Yesh Atid and Telem, who will be in opposition, have 16 seats; there were also two from B&W who split off and joined the government as a separate party and two from the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance who joined the new rump B&W, while another effectively joined the Likud’s bloc… it gets complicated!)

Despite the imbalance now of the two main components, Likud and (rump) B&W, each has rough parity in the government. This is a sense in which it is still sort of a “unity” government. B&W currently has 13 ministers, while Likud has 14, even though the Likud caucus is twice the size of B&W’s. In addition, the B&W splinter joining the government, the 2-seat Derech Eretz, gets one minister. So does Gesher, which is just Orly Levi-Abekasis, who split from Labor-Gesher-Meretz to join the government. And Labor has two. In addition, there is Rafael Peretz, who split from the nationalist Yemina (the rest of which is going into opposition), plus one from United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and one from Shas. (The latter two, both haredi–or ultra-orthodox–parties, combine for 16 Knesset seats.)

Thus, strictly in portfolios, the remnant of Blue and White made off really well, getting 37% of the cabinet despite contributing only around 22% of the cabinet’s parliamentary basis. Likud gets 40% of the cabinet, with about 44% of the parliamentary basis.

Plus, of course, there is the rotation. Gantz gets a turn at the premiership after 18 months, if the agreement lasts. So, while critics on the leftish side of the political spectrum are calling Gantz a sell out for going into government with Netanyahu, he actually got a pretty good deal, in terms of the portfolios:legislators ratio. (I will not go into policy in this post, but my sense is he did decently well there, given the bargaining situation.)

In the end, both blocs failed to win three straight elections–even the first of which was called several months earlier than required. And so compromise was the only option. Well, no, actually it was not. A fourth election in just over a year’s time could have been called. In fact, under Israeli law, it would have happened automatically had a deal not been struck to form a government. Polling strongly suggested a new election would finally give the Nethanyahu-led bloc (Likud, Yemina, UTJ, and Shas) more than 61 seats.

The bargaining over government formation, when there is a looming return to elections, always takes place against the backdrop of what each side expects in the event of a new election. This only enhances the significance of the portfolio balance and rotation Gantz was able to extract. Likud and its allies certainly had no reason to fear the outcome of an election, and could have just run out the clock and let it happen, while blaming Gantz (and Lapid) for dragging voters to the polls yet again.

So Netanyahu and his allies struck a deal either because the ongoing coronavirus crisis made going back to the polls seem unappealing, or because Nethanyahu really preferred a coalition containing at least one party to his left over one formed around a narrow right-wing (nationalist-haredi) bloc. The reason need not be one or the other. Both factors probably matter.

But bear in mind that Nethanyahu has always had coalitions in which he had partners from the center-left as well as to his right, with the partial exception of the one formed after the 2015 election–the one that was ended early to kick off what would turn out to be a sequence of three elections. In that coalition, Kulanu (10 seats) was to Likud’s left, although firmly part of the “nationalist camp” in its self-definition (and merged with Likud after the first of the three 2019-20 elections). Thus it is entirely plausible that Nethanyahu preferred some sort of deal with Gantz, and could not get Gantz to back down from demands that his bloc get a large share of the cabinet even if he failed to bring his whole list with him. With the ulranationalist Yemina (6 seats) going into opposition, and the two haredi parties not really fitting on the left-right dimension (which, in Israel, is mostly about doves vs. hawks), Likud for the first time in the Netanyahu era will anchor the farthest right position in the cabinet. Had they gone back to elections that resulted in a majority for the right-haredi bloc, Likud would have anchored the farthest left position in the likely government.

(As an aside, I wonder how Lapid could possibly have been willing to go to another election, given polling suggesting only around 10% or so for his list. Or maybe he just really decided that being opposition leader was the least unattractive of all his options.)

On the question of whether the agreement can last, the coalition deal includes some creative constitution re-drafting. Before it was voted in as the government, the proto-coalition amended Basic Laws in order to attempt to secure its position, and thus not be vulnerable to a potential Nethanyahu decision to break it up early and precipitate elections. Here are the main points (thanks to JD Mussel for these):

  • There is now a new legal category of government called an “Alternation Government”. The following apply to such a government:
  • PM can’t fire ministers from other bloc without alternate PM’s consent.
  • If an election is called by the Knesset, with at least 12 members of the right bloc voting for it, Gantz automatically becomes PM (and vice versa after PM alternation).
  • The PM’s existing power to call an election (which is not exactly that, since a new government can be formed within 21 days) now requires the consent of the alternate PM.
  • Neither a sitting PM nor alternate PM can serve in a government installed as result of a constructive no-confidence vote (whereby 61 members of Knesset must elect a new government in order to oust the incumbent).
  • The Basic Law change contains an entrenchment clause: “This Basic Law [probably meaning specifically these amended clauses] may only be changed with the votes of 75 MKs,”

A strange beast Netanyahu and Gantz have created! But a political (and public-health) crisis required some creative bargaining and constitutional innovation.

A couple of final small thoughts:

  • Is this the first time in the annals of parliamentary government that a formateur (the one designated to attempt to form a government) had himself installed as Speaker to preserve his leverage while bargaining to install someone else as (initial) Prime Minister?
  • Is this the first case known to constitutional history of a 62.5% majority to amend?

Israel 2020a: Polling day

It is election day in Israel. Again. I probably have not followed an Israeli election so loosely since some time before the 1990s. If I am feeling this indifferent, I can only imagine how the average Israeli voter feels.

Polling throughout the period since the last election–only last September–shows little sign of any fundamental change in the political deadlock that has been a feature since the elections of last April. That is why I put “2020a” in the tile above. It is not inevitable that there will be a “2020b” election, but it is unclear how it will be avoided.

The potential governing scenarios are about the same now as they were when I last wrote, in November. Maybe one of these will happen this time, or maybe today’s results will surprise and the bargaining situation will be markedly different.

The lineup of parties is pretty much the same as last time. The main difference is yet another shift in the options on the Zionist left. The Democratic Union is defunct already, and the Labor-Gesher alliance has formed an alliance list with a third partner, Meretz. Cleverly, they are calling it Labor-Gesher-Meretz. The wider alliance was formed out of necessity, with the grave danger that one or both of the components could have fallen below the 3.25% threshold if running separately. The Greens are no longer in this partnership (or running at all), and Stav Shaffir failed to find a home, thereby depriving the left of one its star MKs (in my assessment).

There is also one candidate on the Labor-Gesher-Meretz list–in a realistic slot (#7)–from an old splinter party called Democratic Choice: former Deputy Chief of the General Staff Yair Golan, who had been elected with Democratic Union in September. Issawi Frej, an Arab politician who was elected in the 4th rank on Meretz’s list last April, has been dropped all the way to a likely unrealistic 11th on this election’s list. (He was 7th on Democratic Union’s list, which included Meretz and Greens, in September; the list won 5 seats.)

The realignment on the right was minor, with Yamina back as the more nationalist and Religious Zionist flank to the right of Likud. Naftali Bennet of New Right is back to being #1 on this list, with Ayelet Shaked (who led the list in September) dropped to #3; in between them is Rafi Peretz of the Jewish Home (Bayit Yehudi) group within the Yamina alliance. Otzma is again running separately, and no poll that I have seen has put it anywhere near the  threshold.

Yisrael Beiteinu is still claiming not to be willing to go back into the right-wing/Haredi bloc, and without their seats, there probably is still no majority for the right. YB leader Avigdor Liberman is also again saying that his backing a minority government with support from the Joint List (of predominantly Arab parties) is also out of the question.

Then there is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ongoing legal problems–this time an actual trial set to begin on 17 March. The Attorney General and Supreme Court may have to rule on a question that they have so far dodged–can a leader on trial form a new government? I can’t claim to know, but the Basic Law on Government certainly does not say clearly that he could not. (Logically one might think he could not!)

If he were to be ruled ineligible, then a unity government (Likud and Blue and White) probably would form. But it would be very messy, to say the least, if it was the legal system that ultimately forced Netanyahu out.

The lists of Likud and Blue & White are not much different from September, but one potentially significant change is Gadi Yevarkan, a representative of the Ethiopian community. He was at #33 on the list of Blue & White in September, making him the list’s last winner. For this list he jumped to Likud, and with the 20th slot on the list, he is a sure winner.

As far as the polls are concerned, most of them showed Blue and White ahead until recent weeks, when Likud has pulled ahead. Quite a few polls have shown them tied, lately around 33 or 34 seats. More importantly, none that I know of has shown the current governing bloc at 61 seats, the number needed for a majority government. (This refers to the bloc without YB, which has shown no willingness to rejoin since walking out of the government in late 2018.)

The last polls to show Blue and White with a lead seem to have been published around 21 February. I will use one example to compare to the late-campaign averages. The Panels poll conducted on 19 February showed B&W on 36 seats and Likud on 32. This was one of the worst results for the right/Haredi bloc, showing it with 54 seats (it won 55 in September). It had YB on 8 seats (same as in September). The average of the last seven polls shows Likud at 34 and B&W at 33, with YB at 6. More importantly, this average has the right/Haredi bloc on 58. The Labor-Gesher-Meretz list has increased from 8 seats in that Panels poll of 21 Feb. to 9 in the late average. Overall, this suggests there has been some movement from B&W + Labor-led (44 then, 42 now) to the right. Of course, all such differences are within the polls’ margin of error. In any case, the main conclusion is that, if the polls are roughly accurate, there is still no majority for Netanyahu’s coalition. There is, of course, also no alternative majority that is viable without Likud or some part of that bloc, because B&W is not going to govern with the Joint List, and that (with Labor+) would still not be a majority without YB. So we are stuck, again.

Finally, on the Joint List, it is currently at 14 in the late-polls average, which would represent a one-seat gain on the last election. If it gets 14, it will elect three women; if it were to get 15, it would elect four (two are in safe seats). The parties in this alliance are trying to reach Bedouin voters and others who have not supported it in the previous elections. As always, it has to overcome calls by some in its community to boycott. If there is widespread abstention by Arab citizens, it will help the Likud and allies, though it still seems that the latter getting to 61 would be a stretch, unless the result diverges considerably from the consensus of the polls.

Oh, and really finally, it is my wish that the media stop calling this a “third round” of elections. Both the April and September elections of 2019 were fully complete, legitimate elections that produced a Knesset. The parties elected at those times simply failed to agree a government. This isn’t another round of one process, but a third discrete attempt to elect a Knesset that actually can sustain a government.

Attorneys General–institutions matter

Now that indictments have been announced against the (outgoing–dare I say?) Prime Minister of Israel, it is worth reviewing the institutional basis of the office of Attorney General in Israel.

I am seeing some casual takes on Twitter about why the US doesn’t have an Attorney General who takes a tougher line against law-breaking at the top of government. But the offices could hardly be more different. The US Attorney General is a cabinet appointee. The President picks who holds that position, subject only to Senate majority confirmation. Of course, Trump has had a highly compliant Senate majority throughout his presidency.

Trump could not have had occupants of the office that have been as awful for the rule of law as they have been, if the office were structured like Israel’s. So it is worth sketching how the process of appointing the Israeli Attorney General works. My source for this is Aviad Bakshi, Legal Advisers and the Government: Analysis and Recommendations, Kohelet Policy Forum, Policy Paper No. 10, February 2016.

a. There shall be formed a permanent selection committee that shall screen suitable candidates, one of which shall be appointed to the position by the government. The term of each committee shall be four years. 

b. The chairman shall be a retired justice of the Supreme Court who shall be appointed by the President (Chief Justice) of the Supreme Court upon the approval of the Minister of Justice, and the other members shall be: a retired Minister of Justice or retired Attorney General appointed by the government; a Knesset Member elected by the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee of the Knesset; a scholar elected by a forum comprising deans of law schools; an attorney elected by the Israel Bar Association. 

c. The AGI term duration shall be six years, with no extension, irrespective of the term of the government. 

d. The government may remove the AGI from his position due to specific reasons.… These reasons include, in addition to personal circumstances of the AGI, disagreements between the AGI and the government that prevent efficient cooperation. In such an event the selection committee shall convene to discuss the subject and shall submit its opinion to the government, in writing. However, the opinion of the committee is not binding, and the government may decide to remove the AGI contrary to the recommendation of the committee. The AGI shall have the right to a hearing before the government and before the committee. 

All of this makes for a reasonably independent office. Even if appointment and dismissal are still in the hands of the government, the screening and term provisions make it an arms-length relationship. The occupant of the post is obviously not a cabinet minister, as in the US, and is not a direct appointee of the head of government or the cabinet.

Worlds apart, institutionally.

And this is even before we get into the parliamentary vs. presidential distinction. A president is–for better or worse–meant to be hard to indict, let alone remove. That’s why the main tool against a potentially criminal executive in the US and many other presidential systems is lodged in the congress, through impeachment, and not in a state attorney. A prime minister in a parliamentary system, on the other hand, by definition has no presumption of a fixed term.

The normal way to get rid of a PM is, of course, a vote of no-confidence or the PM’s own party or coalition partners withdrawing support. But that’s the point–they are constitutionally not protected when the political winds, let alone the legals ones, turn against them.

In the broader institutional context of a parliamentary system, it is presumably much easier to take the step of also designing an independent Attorney General’s office that has the ability to indict a sitting head of government.

On the other hand, there is still no obvious way to remove Netanyahu from office any time soon, unless his own party rebels against him. Even though Trump’s own party will probably block the super-majority in the Senate needed to remove him from office*, the resolution of the case against Trump might happen considerably sooner than any resolution of Netanyahu’s case. Barring a rebellion by his current allies, Netanyahu may remain PM fore another 4-5 months, through a now-likely third election (since last April) and the post-election coalition bargaining process.

* Assuming the House majority impeaches him, which now looks all but inevitable.

What kind of government for Israel, or third election?

(Some questions at the end about comparative context. Help, please!)

This Wednesday night, Benny Gantz’s period as designated formateur expires. His odds of successfully forming a government look bleak. Nothing has changed to make it any easier than when I last wrote on the topic of government-formation options. And at least one thing has changed to make it harder. It is important to understand that a third election (April 2019, Sept. 2019, and potentially March 2020) is the default if no agreement is reached. There is actually a 21-day period after Gantz’s mandate expires before the election becomes automatic, but there’s scant reason to believe the next 21 days would result in an agreement. (During this 21-day period, it requires 61 Knesset members’ signatures to nominate a PM. Fat chance.)

The change that makes forming a government harder than it was in April or even immediately after the September election is that the bloc that incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) prefers has held tenaciously together. This is the combine of Likud, the two ultra-orthodox lists, and the nationalists that formed the government up until the April election. This bloc lost seats in April, relative to the 2015 election, and lost quite a few more in September. It was a majority when Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu was with it, but he pulled out in December, 2018, and has so far adamantly refused to rejoin it from April till now.

However, all the other party leaders in the bloc have steadfastly said that Netanyahu negotiates for all of them. This has foreclosed, so far, any of the rumored defections whereby some party in the bloc would join Gantz and Liberman to help establish a majority coalition without Likud. In fact, one of the member parties of the bloc actually folded itself into Likud, with Naftali Bennet getting the post of Defense Minister in the deal. This move does not change the fact that the bloc has only 55 seats, six short of the minimum needed for a majority government. But it closed off one potential, if unlikely, path that might have led to a breaking of the deadlock.

It seems that the idea of a minority government of Blue and White (the list Gantz heads), which would have to have the support of both Yisrael Beiteinu and the Joint [Arab] List, is actually being taken semi-seriously. It still seems unlikely, but Gantz just might go for it if late talks with Netanyahu do not produce an agreement. The best evidence that it is being taken seriously is that Netanyahu has gone verbally ballistic–even by his standards–over the possibility. And while the idea has not been endorsed by Gantz, he has not denied it, either. A government needs only a plurality of Knesset votes to be installed. In other words, abstentions do not count against it.

Still, even though the Joint List would not have cabinet positions in such a case (and thus would not be “in government”), the prospect is fraught with difficulty. Not, I would stress, because the parties are Arab, per se. But because they potentially can be classified as anti-system parties, or as a semi-loyal opposition. Parties that do not accept the fundamental character of the state rarely get any kind of formalized role in backing a minority government in any democracy. (I invite examples, but I can’t think of any.) And it would probably need to be formalized–in a “confidence and supply” agreement–because of one of the ways a government can collapse and early elections be mandated: If a government can’t get supply (i.e., pass a budget). If such an arrangement could be agreed, then a minority government can be stable. It takes 61 votes–a majority–in a constructive no-confidence vote electing a replacement government in order to remove an incumbent cabinet. But the problem is getting it installed and with a supply lifeline in place.

As has been the case since April, the most logical outcome is a “unity” government. But Gantz ran on replacing Netanyahu (policy differences are scant) and he and, even more forcefully, his co-leaders have claimed they will not serve under Netanyahu. Meanwhile, the incumbent is claiming a right to go first as PM in a rotation deal. It would be a little odd to give the priority to the one who came second in votes, though his bloc is indeed the larger one. That bloc again… Netanyahu also wants all the partners to be included, which implies Blue and White would be just an appendage to a right-wing government. B&W got lots of votes from leftist voters, despite what we would normally call a center-right party positioning. So Gantz’s lack of enthusiasm is understandable.

Of course, Netanyahu wants to go first because he still may be indicted at some point in the near future. His time horizon is a bit short! B&W might need to insist on a legal change that would ensure Netanyahu would step down if indicted, but one can imagine this is going to be a hard pledge to extract.

Another possibility not to be ruled out is Liberman going back to the right-wing bloc. He has dug in hard enough that I actually don’t think this is likely. But if he gets compromises he can sell to his voters, he might do it. He does not exactly have a record of being the most consistent politician.

A third election might not change much. The five polls so far since the last election have not shown much movement of voter support. What movement they have shown has been somewhat downward for the Bibi Bloc in the three most recent polls. It may be relevant here that only the first of these polls showed Liberman’s party losing ground, and the two most recent ones show him gaining one. (The second and fifth polls in the sequence are by the same pollster.)

Will there be a deal? Who knows!

Finally, this all leads me to some questions:

  1. In other parliamentary democracies, how common is it for parties that ran separately in an election to negotiate as a bloc (delegating the largest party thereof as negotiator for them all) after the election?
  2. How common is it for parties that could be classified as “anti-system” or “semi-loyal” to be the outside support parties to a minority cabinet?
  3. Are there any other cases of something that may yet happen here, in which the one designated as formateur agrees to be in a cabinet but not its (first) head?

Israel 2019b, compared to 2019a

Here, following up on the earlier discussion of post-election bargaining scenarios, I want to compare Israel’s two elections of 2019 on several statistical measures. The 2019b (September) results are not quite official yet, but are very unlikely to change other than in the smallest of voting detail.

The table below compares the votes for Netanyahu’s “Bibi bloc” of right-wing and Haredi parties, by various definitions, as well as the indicators of fragmentation: effective number of parties by seats and votes, total number of lists with seats, and the seats won by the largest list. For each measure, there is a comparison of change from April to September. The final three columns refer to output of the Seat Product Model (SPM) for the indicators of fragmentation–what is expected from the model (given an assembly size of 120 and district magnitude also of 120), and ratios of the actual indicators to the expectation.

Measure April Sept change SPM expected Ratio, April Ratio, Sept.
Bibi bloc (percent votes) 48.7 44.5 -4.2
… plus YB 52.7 51.5 -1.2
… plus Otzma 46.4
… plus YB & Otzma 52.7 53.3 0.6
Effective N, seats 5.24 5.67 0.43 4.93 1.06 1.15
Effective N, votes 6.33 6.11 -0.22 5.23 1.21 1.17
No. of lists with 1 or more seats 11 9 -2 11 1.00 0.82
Seats for largest list 35 33 -2 36 0.97 0.92

The scale of the defeat for the core Bibi bloc is clear. Already in April, these parties had less than 50% of the votes, at 48.7%, which is why they won only 60 seats under Israel’s proportional system. If we include Yisrael Beiteinu in the total Bibi bloc, we get 52.7% (which is why this larger definition of the bloc had 65 seats). As I have explained already–both before and after the most recent election–we should not count YB in the bloc, particularly since it was this party’s actions that precipitated the early elections of 2019–yes, both of them.

In the second election of 2019, this Bibi bloc fell to 44.5% of the vote, a drop of 4.2 percentage points. If we include YB, they do have a narrow majority of votes (51.2%), but we should not include them. However, we probably should include Otzma Yehudit, given that it was part of the Union of Right Wing Parties in April, and probably would have been invited to join a coalition had it cleared the threshold in the September election. But still this is short of a voting majority without YB, at 46.4% (which would mean a loss of 2.3 percentage points off the April showing of 48.7).

For a baseline, consider that the Bibi bloc had 48.4% in 2015, or 53.5% including YB (which was without doubt part of the bloc at that time–their staying out of the coalition initially in 2015 was a surprise). Note that, leaving out YB, they were already below majority voter support in 2015, but had managed 61 seats. The reason they gained ever so slightly in votes in April, yet got only 60 seats, was all the wasted votes for New Right (3.22%), which did not clear the threshold in the April, 2019, election.*

If we include both Otzma and YB in the 2019b election, it looks like a very small gain for the wider bloc. But we should not do this because some of YB’s increased votes probably came from Blue and White or other parties not in the right, due to YB’s promise not to return to a Likud-led government unless it was a “unity” government with Blue and White.

On the fragmentation indicators, the effective number of seat-winning parties went up, from 5.24 to 5.67, despite the drop of the total number of lists winning seats, from 11 to 9. The increase in the effective number is due to the smaller size of the largest party in the more recent election, 33 seats (Blue and White) vs. 35 (tie between Blue & White and Likud).

The effective number of vote-earning parties came down somewhat, from 6.33 to 6.11. None of these measures is much different than what we should expect under the SPM, although the raw number of represented lists this time is actually smaller than expected, while the effective number of seat winning parties was closer to the expectation in April than now.

We should expect the largest party, given this electoral system, to have 30.2% of the seats, which out of 120 works out to 36 (rounded down). The election pretty much nailed that in April, but this election saw a return to a smaller than expected plurality party.

So, strictly from the SPM, this was a slightly less “normal” election than 2019a, although not too far off. From the standpoint of the usual pattern with a “b” election (a second one within a year), it was, as I anticipated, a little unusual. Typically, the effective numbers go down and the size of the largest up. Israel went the opposite way between April and September, and thus government formation still will not be easy.


* We could go back and include Yachad (of which Otzma Yehudit was a part) in the 2015 count, which would bring it to 51.3%, but at the time I do not recall their being taken seriously as part of the bloc. Doing so, of course, increases the scale of the loss of voter support already as of the first election of 2019.

Bibi was right to be worried: So now what?

Update: Three Joint List MKs (the Balad faction) have written to the President to say they withdraw their recommendation of Gantz, contravening the leader’s earlier claim to be speaking for all 13. This puts Gants one behind Netanyahu. I don’t think it changes the bigger picture, as described below, however.


Over the summer, I noted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu was, by his actions, showing he was worried that he would not retain his post after the elections of 17 September. He was right to be worried. The election results were very bad for him. His party, Likud, came in second place, two seats behind the Blue & White alliance, led by Benny Gantz. The 31 seats for Likud represent a loss of 8 seats, based on the combined strength in the April election of the Likud list and Kulanu (which merged into Likud before this election). That is a stinging rebuke from the voters.

The combined right-wing/Haredi bloc had 60 seats in April; it seemed like 65 as the results came in, because it was assumed that Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Liberman, should be counted in the bloc. However, it was already evident before the April election that Liberman’s support could not be guaranteed. It was his decision to leave the government in December, 2018, that led Netanyahu to go for the early election in the first place; an election was not required earlier than November, 2019. (Liberman also had taken his time joining the government after the 2015 election, having initially remained outside and thus leaving the Likud-led bloc with 61, the narrowest of majorities.)

Liberman refused, after the April election, to rejoin a Netanyahu-led government, which is the main reason a new election was called for September. Based on the results, the bloc that was Bibi’s government on the eve of the April election has lost five seats, and now has only 55.The Haredi (ultra-orthodox) have grown from 16 to 17 seats (Shas, the Sephardi Haredi party, picked up a seat). The ultranationalists, reunited on the Yamina list after the disaster of April when New Right barely missed clearing the 3.25% threshold, wound up with 8 seats. Superficially, this is gain, as the Union of Right Wing Parties (URWP) had only 5 seats in April. But their potential might have been greater, given that their reunion should have also added on the 4 potential seats they just missed out on in April. However, they again lost votes to division, as the racist Otzma Yehudit (which was part of URWP and also had a candidate on the Likud list) ran separately but still earned 1.9% of the vote in this most recent election–about 2 seats worth, but well below the threshold.

However, there is a really important point that casual observers of Israeli politics often overlook: There is not even a semblance of a unified center-left bloc that could form an alternative government now that the “Bibi bloc” (minus Liberman) has been decisively defeated. While Blue and White has 33 seats, and thus a plurality, the only plausible center-left coalition partners (the realigned Labor + Gesher but minus Stav Shaffir, who joined the Greens and Barak + Meretz) bring in only 11 more seats (6 for Labor-Gesher, 5 for Democratic Union). So that’s 55 for the right-Haredi bloc and 44 for what might be loosely called a center-left bloc. Very loosely, as there is little about B&W that actually leans left. It ran about as pure a “valence” campaign as you will ever see, meaning it focused on how they could be tougher on Hamas in Gaza than Bibi has been, and would be competent, but otherwise not much on issues.

One issue B&W did emphasize was secularism, which is also one of the issues that propelled Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid, to a strong debut showing in 2013. Lapid is the #2 on the B&W list. This was also the issue that Liberman emphasized in refusing to rejoin Netanyahu’s bloc after the April election. It certainly worked, as he increased his seats from 5 (his party was below the threshold in many pre-election polls earlier this year) to 8. He has said he will only recommend to the President that the government to be formed now be a “unity” government of B&W, Likud, and his party.

This leaves us with the Joint List, consisting of Arab parties. (One component is Hadash, basically the Communist Party, which always has one Jewish MK.) Reunited for this election, after running in two separate lists in April, the Arab parties got back to their 2015 debut performance as a single list, winning 13 seats. This makes them the third largest bloc in the Knesset. During the campaign, Joint List leader Ayman Odeh tried to set some conditions under which they would join a government. However, he immediately had to walk them back as other leaders of the parties in the list clearly were not on board with the idea.

Odeh and others have made several statements since the election that they are not interested in sharing collective cabinet responsibility. So do not even ask if there could be a government of B&W, the left parties, and the Arab parties. It is not going to happen, even if Gantz invited them, which he will not. Also note that even if this were a viable option, it still is not a majority–it is 57 seats–unless Yisrael Beiteinu joined. And that is really hard to imagine. Or if the Haredi parties joined, which honestly is easier to imagine, but still highly unlikely.

Nonetheless, the Joint List made an announcement on 22 September that it will recommend to the President that Gantz be given the first attempt to form a government. A fly in the ointment is that Balad, one of the components of the Joint List, says it opposes recommending Gantz; they have three seats, and it is not clear if this means they would vote differently from their colleagues if it came to that. But we are a long way from any vote testing Joint List discipline. Odeh said, in part:

My colleagues and I have made this decision [to recommend Gantz be tasked with forming a government] not as an endorsement of Mr. Gantz and his policy proposals for the country. We are aware that Mr. Gantz has refused to commit to our legitimate political demands for a shared future and because of that we will not join his government…

Our decision to recommend Mr. Gantz as the next prime minister without joining his expected national unity coalition government is a clear message that the only future for this country is a shared future, and there is no shared future without the full and equal participation of Arab Palestinian citizens.

Selecting a formateur–a member of the Knesset who will attempt for form a government–is one of the President’s few constitutional duties. Usually it is perfunctory. However, with neither the former governing bloc nor any obvious alignment around B&W having 61 Knesset members backing it, this time the President, Reuven Rivlin, actually has some discretion.

It looks like there will be 55 recommendations for Netanyahu and 57 for Gantz. If Liberman also recommends Gantz, then the latter has 65. Even if Liberman does not do so, it is likely that Gantz now will get the first call as formateur. But it is only an opportunity. It does not make him Prime Minister. So, can he pull it off?

A unity government (a grand coalition of some degree of grandness) still would be the most viable, and closest to what both Gantz and Liberman campaigned for. However, the very large obstacle is the continued presence of Netanyahu. Gantz and his allies in B&W have repeatedly said they will not sit in a government with him, and at least for now I assume they will stick by that. So unless Netanyahu sees the writing on the wall and resigns, or somehow Likud tells him it is time to spend more time with his family (while he can before he goes to prison), this option won’t materialize at least for a while.

It is possible that Netanyahu will face his formal indictment some time over the period Gantz gets to form a government. In that case, maybe the odds of the “unity” outcome improve with a new Likud leader as #2 in the cabinet. Till then, it remains difficult to see how it happens.

The other option is a minority government. In many parliamentary democracies, that is exactly what would happen in such a situation. But Israel has no such tradition. The only minority governments the country has had were short-term cases after some parties left a government, not the first government formed after an election.

A minority government is more politically sustainable now than it would have been before the most recent amendment to the Basic Law provisions on government formation and dissolution. There is now a full constructive vote of no confidence, whereby the Knesset majority is unable to vote a government out unless it affirmatively elects, with at least 61 votes, a replacement. Thus it does not take 61 votes to form a government (as always, a plurality of those voting would suffice), but it takes 61 to replace it. This increased viability for minority governments is exactly why I recommended a constructive vote of no confidence be adopted when I was an advisor to the Israel Democracy Institute in 2010. Now it has been adopted; I am not claiming credit, but I sure would like to see it put into use!

Such a formula could be stable, but would require an agreement with outside support parties regarding budgets. That is the one way a government could still be forced out even without 61 votes for a replacement–if it could not pass a budget. Given that the demands the Joint List presented concern enhanced funding for their services and infrastructure, including a new Arab town, there actually is the basis for such a deal. But, again, it would still require either Liberman to go along (whether in government or outside), or the Haredi (who have been known to be buyable with budgetary concessions!).

I do not think such a government will be formed. It is way too sensible! More seriously, it would be fraught with problems, with the risk that the cabinet takes some military measure due to a provocation from Hamas (or someone else), and the Joint List pulls the plug, giving up the budgetary concessions for the feel-good political gains of denouncing the government’s actions.

So, what other options are there?

The following looks implausible as of now, but it is a majority: a center-left-Haredi coalition consisting of B&W (33), Labour-Gesher (6), Democratic Union (5), and the Haredi parties (17). I will assume that Liberman would not join this; he has said he will no longer sit with the Haredi parties, but if a sufficient accommodation were made to appease Lapid and others in B&W, would he sit out? If he did not join, it would be only 61 seats and thus precarious. Perhaps it still could strike some sort of deal with the Joint List to tacitly support it in exchange for some policy concessions, without formally signing up to keep the government in power.

If Gantz gets the nod, which seems likely (whether they want to go first or not), he has at least three paths to forming a government, but none of them will be easy. To summarize, they are:

  1. Hold out for Netanyahu to leave the scene, and head a “unity” coalition with Likud (with or without Yisrael Beiteinu, whose votes would not be needed).
  2. A minority government, taking advantage of the stability conferred by the constructive no-confidence vote provision, with agreements from the Joint List, the Haredi parties, and Yisrael Beiteinu (at least two of those three, although the Haredi would be sufficient) to support it on budgetary and other key policy votes.
  3. A majority coalition with the Haredi parties.

For each of these, it is easy to name the reasons why it won’t happen. But one of them needs to happen, or else the country will go to a third election. Actually, that could be more likely than any of the above! But that is a topic for another day.

Follow up: The statistical indicators of the two elections of 2019, compared.

In a ‘b’ election, does turnout increase or decrease?

Israel today has held its second general election of 2019. I did an earlier data dive into such second elections in other countries.

In the previous entry, I did not look at turnout. I’ve seen several claims that it is a “surprise” that turnout in Israel was (supposedly) up today, compared to April. It seems to be a conventional wisdom that voters would be tired of campaigns and voting and would just go to the beach.

So, is that CW reasonable? I thought not. Other things being equal, a prior election should have revealed that important political outcomes are really at stake. On average, then, I think that should increase interest in a second election in close succession, not decrease it.

But, of course, we should not rely on either CW or my hunches. We should look at the data! So I did.

Second elections (and third, in case of Greece 1989-90) within one year are not very common. But with that caveat, turnout changes from one to the next in a sequence for 16 elections where I found data:

* mean +0.00788
* median +0.001
* range: –.074 to +.168
* half increased, half decreased

So, as is often the case, the CW is wrong. There is no systematic tendency of turnout to decrease in a ‘b’ election. However, I am not going to claim victory for my contrary hunch, not on margins like that!

Israel is about to have a very unusual ‘b’ election

Israel is about to hold its second election of 2019, and it will be unusual, relative to other cases of a second election within a year elsewhere. While the number of lists winning seats is likely to go down, other indicators of fragmentation are likely to go up.

Using the National Level Party Systems Dataset (Struthers, Li, and Shugart, 2018), I performed calculations to find out how the standard indicators of party-system fragmentation change from a first election that fails to produce a “stable” government or any government at all, leading to a second election. I looked at all cases in the dataset in which two elections were held in the same Gregorian calendar year, plus all cases where an election is in the second half of a year and followed by another in the first half of the next year. The first table below gives the full list, including the first and second election in each sequence. In one case in the dataset (Greece, 1989-1990) the second election was followed by yet another within a year, indicated by a “3” in the final column. Note that a country’s data sequence begins in the early post-WWII era or when a country democratized and ends in 2016, so any cases outside that timeframe are not included.

country year date mo within_yr_seq
Denmark 1953 4/21/53 4 1
Denmark 1953 9/22/53 9 2
Denmark 1987 9/8/87 9 1
Denmark 1988 5/10/88 5 2
Greece 1989 6/18/89 6 1
Greece 1989 11/5/89 11 2
Greece 1990 4/8/90 4 3
Greece 2012 5/6/12 5 1
Greece 2012 6/17/12 6 2
Greece 2015 1/25/15 1 1
Greece 2015 9/20/15 9 2
Iceland 1959 6/28/59 6 1
Iceland 1959 10/25/59 10 2
Ireland 1982 2/18/82 2 1
Ireland 1982 11/24/82 11 2
Japan 1952 10/1/52 10 1
Japan 1953 4/19/53 4 2
Japan 1979 10/7/79 10 1
Japan 1980 6/22/80 6 2
Moldova 2009 4/5/09 4 1
Moldova 2009 7/29/09 7 2
Spain 2015 12/20/15 12 1
Spain 2016 6/26/16 6 2
Sri Lanka 1960 3/19/60 3 1
Sri Lanka 1960 7/20/60 7 2
St. Lucia 1987 4/6/87 4 1
St. Lucia 1987 4/30/87 4 2
Thailand 1992 3/22/92 3 1
Thailand 1992 9/13/92 9 2
Turkey 2015 6/7/15 6 1
Turkey 2015 11/1/15 11 2
UK 1974 2/28/74 2 1
UK 1974 10/10/74 10 2

The list contains 17 cases of an election within twelve months of the preceding one. Not a large sample; fortunately, this sort of thing does not happen very often. (There are 1,025 elections in the sample.)

If elites and/or voters “learn” from the experience of bargaining failure or lack of stability from the first election in such a sequence, we would expect the second to be less fragmented. We can test this by looking at mean differences between the second election and the first. The indicators I have are the number of parties (or lists, more precisely, counting an independent as a “list” of one) that win at least one seat (NS0), the effective number of seat-winning lists (NS), the effective number of vote-earning lists (NV), the seat share of the largest party (s1), and the vote share of the largest party (v1). The first three should go down if there’s an adaptation occurring, while the second two should go up (i.e., the largest party gets bigger).

Here is what we see from the results, reporting the mean differences:

NS0: –0.215

NS: –0.098

NV: –0.469

s1: +0.010

v1: +0.0035

In terms of raw direction, all are as expected. On the other hand, the number of lists winning seats hardly budges (recall that the first number is the actual number, not “effective”), and the effective number on seats changes much less than the one on votes. The implication is that fewer votes are wasted in the second election, as we would expect. On the other hand, the seat share of the largest party–the single most important quantity because it determines whether there is a single-party majority and if not, how far from majority it is–rises by a very small amount, on average. That is partly due to most of these systems being proportional, so large shifts should be unusual. The complete list of elections and their indicators is provided in an appendix below.

As far as statistical significance is concerned, only in NV and v1 is the difference significant (NV at p<0.03; v1 at p<0.10), when comparing these “second” elections to all others. (This is not meant to be a sophisticated test; I am not comparing to a country baseline as I really should.)

We might expect that the first election in such a sequence is anomalously fragmented, hence the need for a second election to calm things down once again. That is also supported, for NV and v1 again, but also, crucially, for s1.

Now, how might the Israeli second election of 2019 compare? We can use the polling average from Knesset Jeremy (using the poll of polls from three weeks before the actual election), and compare to the actual results of 2019a (the first election in the sequence) and the previous election (2015). Also included in the Seat Product Model expectation.

measure 2019b (poll avg) 2019a actual diff 2015 diff SPM expected
NS0 9 11 –2 10 1 11
NS 6.04 5.24 0.801 6.94 –1.70 4.93
NV ? 6.33 ? 7.71 –1.38 5.24
s1 0.258 0.292 -0.034 0.25 0.042 0.3
v1 ? 0.2646 ? 0.234 0.031 0.289

For the number of lists that look likely to clear the threshold, we have the direction expected: currently there are 9 likely to win seats, compared to 11 in April. In turn, the April figure was one seat-winning list higher than in 2015. However, in terms of both NS and s1, the case is anomalous. All indications are that the largest party will be smaller than it was in April, which also will drive up the effective number. Moreover, these measures in April were less fragmented than they had been in 2015; that is, the first election of the 2019 sequence was not unusually fragmented. Quite the contrary; I called it a “normal” election at the time for a reason.

So the Israeli sequence of two elections in 2019 is unusual indeed.


Appendix

Below are two tables. One has all the “second” elections, and changes in the various measures. The second has all “first” elections. In each case, the comparison is just to the immediately preceding election (not to all other elections), so we can see how much short-term fluctuations were affecting the process in each sequence.

Elections ocurring within one year of previous, compared to previous results
country year mo diff_Ns0 diff_Ns diff_Nv diff_s1 diff_v1
Denmark 1953 9 1 -0.2199998 -0.1000001 0.014 0.009
Denmark 1988 5 -1 0.0100002 0 0.005 0.005
Greece 1989 11 1 -0.0800002 -0.1700001 0 0
Greece 1990 4 5 0.05 0.0700002 0.005 0.017
Greece 2012 6 0 -1.07 -3.75 0.07 0.108
Greece 2015 9 1 0.1490002 -1.19 -0.014 -0.008
Iceland 1959 10 0 0.24 . 0 .
Ireland 1982 11 -1 -0.01 0.03 0 0
Japan 1953 4 . 0.8099999 0.8999999 -0.088 -0.091
Japan 1980 6 -8 -0.3999999 -0.24 0.074 0.033
Moldova 2009 7 1 0.8699999 0.27 0 -0.048
Spain 2016 6 -1 -0.3700004 -0.7999997 0.04 0.043
Sri Lanka 1960 7 . -1.22 -2.52 0.166 0.032
St. Lucia 1987 4 0 0 -0.1099999 0 0.007
Thailand 1992 9 0 -0.0999999 0.0999999 0 0.017
Turkey 2015 11 . -0.322 0.03 -0.126 -0.089
UK 1974 10 -1 -0.01 -0.02 0.028 0.021
Election that is the first in a series of two within a year, compared to preceding election
country year mo diff_Ns0 diff_Ns diff_Nv diff_s1 diff_v1
Denmark 1953 4 0 -0.1300001 -0.0900002 0.013 0.008
Denmark 1987 9 0 0.27 0.5799999 -0.009 -0.023
Greece 1989 6 1 0.26 0.1400001 -0.044 -0.006
Greece 2012 5 2 2.24 5.79 -0.173 -0.25
Greece 2015 1 0 -0.6700001 -0.77 0.067 0.066
Iceland 1959 6 0 -0.28 . 0.035 .
Ireland 1982 2 -2 -0.05 -0.1699998 -0.039 0.009
Japan 1952 10 . . . . .
Japan 1979 10 -1 0.1199999 -0.2199998 -0.002 0.027
Moldova 2009 4 1 0.1400001 0.1600001 -0.079 0.035
Spain 2015 12 -3 1.93 3.23 -0.18 -0.159
Sri Lanka 1960 3 . 1.456 2.26 -0.206 -0.043
St. Lucia 1987 4 -1 0.55 -0.0800002 -0.295 -0.049
Thailand 1992 3 . . . . .
Turkey 2015 6 . 0.4320002 0 0.002 0.005
UK 1974 2 2 0.1900001 0.6900001 -0.05 -0.077

 

Some quitters and trying-harders (Israel 2019b)

Some updates on parties in the Israeli election (happening 17 Sept.):

Moshe Feiglin, the leader of Zehut, says he may be quitting the race. He has met recently with PM Netanyahu about some promises for taking up the Zehut issues of cannabis legalization and more “libertarian” economic policy, plus a possible administrative post. Despite the promises he may get, any offer on policies or posts if he does quit should be seen as cheap talk. Without seats (which, to be clear, no poll shows he can get if he stays in), he will have no leverage. Moreover, if there are not the seats in the Knesset for a narrow right-wing government, Netanyahu won’t be able to follow through on this deal even if he sincerely wants to.

Orly Levy-Abecassis, the leader of Gesher, says she will quit politics if the list she is running on, the Labor-Gesher alliance, fails to get more than the 4-6 seats indicated by most polls. That’s a strange vow! She is ranked second, so she is assured of returning to the Knesset (her party, running separately, won none in April), unless the list somehow fails to get even 3.25% of the vote. On the other hand, it is clear that the alliance already has failed, in a sense. Labor alone won 6 seats last time, and Gesher’s votes would have been worth 2 seats had it cleared the threshold. So the combined list is less than the sum of its parts. Of course, losing a key part of what was the Labor party, with Stav Shaffir and others defecting to the Democratic Union, has to be hurting a lot.

The Joint List, consisting of Arab parties, is running ads in Hebrew in attempt to boost votes from leftist Jews unhappy with the center-ward drift of both Labor and Meretz. As far as I know, this is a first. They supposedly are hoping for 1-2 seats from Jewish voters. I have doubts that this is realistic; it seems rather optimistic. Meanwhile, the leader, Ayman Odeh, said he would be open to joining a center-left coalition. I believe that is also a first. It also is unlikely to happen; indeed, Blue and White (which would be the leader of any such government) quickly poured cold water on the idea. Odeh listed conditions in his statement; Benny Gantz (B&W leader) countered with his own conditions. In both cases, the conditions are unlikely to be acceptable to the other party (although they do not strike me as extreme in any sense). For that matter, Odeh evidently was not speaking for all the parties in his alliance in opening the door to government participation, as there were denunciations of the idea from within. Anyway, perhaps the door is very, very slightly ajar for cooperation, but don’t count on it.

Israel 2019b: Grouping the parties, relative to 2019a

As readers of this blog are sure to be aware, Israel is soon to have its second general election of 2019. The election in April did not result in a governing coalition being formed, and so the Knesset dissolved itself and set a very early election for 17 September, giving us election 2019b. That’s almost here!

A little time has passed now since the final lists of candidates were submitted, which is also the process through which parties may forge pre-electoral alliances with other parties, presenting a common list.

In what follows, I want to review the parties by groups, by which I mean either formal alliances for this election, or just parties/alliances with affinities for others in terms of ideological placement or demographics. I will compare the number of lists in these groups (some of which are a little arbitrary) to what we saw in the April election. In each group, I will indicate how many separate lists there were in April and how many there are for September.

Likud and close buddies

2019a: 2

2019b: 1

Keep this in mind when looking at polls and comparing to April: Likud, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, won 35 seats in April’s election. However, in this election, its list includes Kulanu (Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s party, which first ran in 2015). So we have to compare Likud this time with Likud+Kulanu last time. Combining them, they won 39 seats in April. Thus polls showing 30-32 seats for this next election indicate a substantial weakening of Netanyahu’s position.

Haredi parties

2019a: 2

2019b: 2

Nothing changes here. United Torah Judaism and Shas (Ashkenazi and Sephardi Haredi parties, respectively), are both running again. Bibi’s favorite partners.

Farther right: Ultranationalist

2019a: 2

2019b: 1*

Before the April election, two of the leaders of Jewish Home (Bayit Yehudi) split off and formed a new party, New Right (HaYamin HeHadash), led by Naftali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked. They failed to clear the 3.25% threshold, leaving only the list that included the rest of what had been Jewish Home (rebranded Union of Right Wing Parties, or URWP) to win seats in the Knesset.

For the September election, they are together again. Somewhat surprisingly, the hardline religious (but not-Haredi) parties inside Jewish Home accepted a woman, Shaked, as the leader. The new-old list is now called Rightward (or To the Right; Yamina). The list has been polling at around 10 seats, a significant increase on what they had in April, though in fact steady support given URWP’s 6 and what would have been New Right’s 4 had they not just missed the threshold.

The asterisk above is that we could count another list for 2019b, but it is not likely to get seats. I am referring to Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit), the Kahanist (read: racist) party that was part of the URWP in April, due to controversial deal brokered by Netanyahu. Otzma is running separately this time (it initially announced an alliance with an even more fringy party, Noam, but that fell apart.)

(There was also a Bayit Yehudi candidate who was given a slot on the Likud list in April but will not be this time; it must be because of this candidate that Knesset Jeremy indicates 38, rather than 39, for Likud+Kulanu in comparing seats at the last election to current polling.)

Center-something and hoping for “unity”

2019a: 2

2019b: 2

Here I am referring to both the Blue & White list, headed by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, and Yisrael Beteinu (YB), headed by Avigdor Liberman. Blue & White remains intact, despite its internal difficulties. It tied Likud in April with 35 seats, and is generally running even or 1-2 seats behind Likud-Kulanu this time (so 29-31 seats). Are they center-left? Center-right? Just center? Beats me. Basically, they are the “we are tough guys who can take over from Bibi” alliance.

Liberman is often classified as hard right, and in terms of security, he certainly fits that description. However, his party has always been more strictly secular than others on the right, broadly defined. If we have to do the “left-right” thing, that makes him pretty left on the religion–state dimension. Whatever he is, it was his refusal to (re-)join a Likud+ultranationalist+Haredi coalition that led to there being a 2019b election. He has called for a “unity” (grand coalition) government. So let’s put him in the “center”. In any case, the number of lists remains the same in this grouping. Yisrael Beteinu is polling around 10 seats. That would double the April result, suggesting that his effort to raise the salience of the secular issue by not rejoining the Bibi bloc earlier this year is paying off.

As a bonus, and an indicator of their likeminded positions, these two have signed a surplus agreement. These agreements allow two lists to pool votes for purposes of calculating the D’Hondt quotients for seat allocation (as long as both clear the threshold). An agreement can often result in an additional seat for the combine, which usually will go to the larger list in the agreement. In an election in which one seat might make a difference, that’s not a trivial or mere “technical” matter. (The two parties did not have such an agreement with one another in April, when YB had a deal with New Right.)

Zionist old left and new partners

2019a: 3

2019b: 2

Two left-wing parties that won seats in April, plus another party that did not; two alliances now. There is quite some significant reshuffling here. The two seat-winning lists in April were Labor and Meretz, and both had pretty bad results. Labor did especially badly, coming in with only 6 seats, despite having been the main component of the second largest list overall and leading opposition alliance, Zionist Union, in 2015 (and in older history, the main governing party). Meretz won only 4. Both were thus facing risk of extinction, and so they got rather creative.

Labor changed its leader (yes, again), choosing Amir Peretz (yes, again). It then formed an alliance with Gesher, led by Orly Levy. Given that Gesher emphasizes social concerns, like cost of living, it is not wrong to classify it as left. But it seems more than a little odd. Levy was originally a member of the Knesset for Yisrael Beteinu, who split off to sit as an independent when Liberman took the party into the government some months after the 2015 election. She formed a joint list with Labor in early August, under the slogan, “People First“.

Meretz is now in an alliance that is known as Democratic Union. The leader is Meretz chairman Nitzan Horowitz. Meretz has joined up with two alliance partners for this election. One is the Green Movement, which will now be headed by a defector from Labor, Stav Shaffir. She was among the leaders of the 2011 social protest movement who then became a Labor MK. She was also one of the leadership contenders in Labor just this past June, when she lost to Peretz. Now she is the second candidate on the list of the Democratic Union. The other component is a new party called Democratic Israel, set up by Ehud Barak (yes, again); the former PM and Defense Minister is ranked only tenth, and looks somewhat unlikely to win a seat.

The Democratic Union list also includes a prominent Reform Rabbi, Gilad Kariv (ranked 11th; he had run with Labor in April, but was ranked at a very unrealistic 25th), and Yael Cohen-Paran, the first Green Party MK. Cohen-Paran entered the Knesset in late 2015 as a member of Zionist Union (after initially being the first loser, at rank #25); she is ranked 8th this time and thus is in a potentially realistic slot.

(Yes, the facts in that last paragraph would be sufficient for me to vote for this list, if I had a vote. Speaking of Shaffir, she has a really inspiring video about why young people should go into politics, as she did. And also an excellent recent democrat-to-Democrat video.)

Non-Zionist left/Arab parties

2019a: 2

2019b: 1

Yes, the Joint List is back. The various Arab and non-Zionist parties had formed the alliance prior to the 2015 election, the first one with the higher threshold. They then split prior to April’s election into two separate lists (both of which won seats, though it was a rather close call for Ra’am-Balad). They are back together, and are shown as getting 10-12 seats in most polls. That could place them third (as they were in 2015, with 13) or fourth (depending on how well Yamina does).


So there you have it. Six groups (as I defined them), which accounted for thirteen different lists in April, down to nine for this election (or ten if we count Otzma). It is almost as if the politicians learned the lesson from the fragmentation and bargaining stalemate of 2019a. Even so, polls consistently suggest that Likud+Haredi+Yamina will probably remain short of the 61 seats needed for a majority, while once again a center-left majority coalition is also not likely to be possible.

Bibi is worried

By way of Raoul Wootliff (Times of Israel correspondent), on Twitter, every candidate on the Likud party slate for this September’s election, down to spot 40, agreed to put their name to a statement declaring no Likud MK other than Netanyahu can be PM after the election.

He then quotes it in full:

We, the undersigned, Likud candidates for the 22nd Knesset, emphasize that we will not be dictated by any other party. Regardless of the election results, PM & Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu is the only Likud candidate for PM – and there will be no other candidate. Gantz and Lapid, who head a dictatorial party [Blue & White] and have elected themselves and their members, are the last who should be preaching morality to Likud – the largest and most powerful democratic party in Israel. Lapid & Gantz, who are constantly working against each other, and Labor which changes chairmen every two weeks, can only envy Likud members who stand behind the party chairman. Their frustration is understandable: the plot to replace Netanyahu after the election finally collapsed today.

From my perspective, the really amazing thing is not the letter, but that the party felt the need to do it. It is standard in parliamentary coalition negotiations that the prospective partners do not get to dictate other parties’ personnel.

I interpret this as meaning that Bibi is worried about another bargaining impasse like the one following the election in April. Such an impasse might lead to internal pressure on him to resign, in order that the party can form a “unity” government with Blue & White leaders Gantz and Lapid.

While the candidates’ signing such a statement shows the hold Netanyahu has on his party, there is no sense in which it would bind them after the election, should the results again leave a narrow right-wing government short of a majority.

Is there going to be an Israel 2019b?

Today, the Knesset of Israel took the first step towards passing a bill to dissolve itself and set an early election, probably in early September. This came after Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman said he would not join an emerging government coalition that he claimed would be a halakha government. He was referring to the demands in such a coalition of the two Haredi Knesset factions, Shas and United Torah Judaism. (Halakha is Jewish law.)

It is still possible that this is all an elaborate ploy by PM Benjamin Netanyahu and his various allies to pressure Liberman into backing down. However, Liberman himself has said he welcomes new elections, and the preliminary reading of the elections bill passed with 65 votes, or exactly the number that the putative right/Haredi coalition would have if Yisrael Beitenu’s five seats are included.

In the 2019(a?) election in April, Netanyahu’s Likud won 35 seats, and the two Haredi lists 8 each. Add to those the seats of “soft right” Kulanu (4) and ultranationalist Union of Right Parties (5) and you get 60, exactly half the Knesset. These 60 seats could be sufficient to form and maintain a government, as long as Liberman and his YB do not vote against its investiture. Would they really vote with the left and Arab parties to stop its formation? It seems unlikely. Given the constructive vote of no confidence now in place in Israeli Basic Law, it would take at 61 seats to elect an alternative government in order to oust an already in-place minority government. It is even harder to imagine YB voting for any actual alternative at some future point in the life of the government. Nonetheless, Netanyahu clearly wants a majority coalition, even though pleasing all those small and essential partners would not make such a government notably more stable than a minority one.

It is also possible to imagine a flexible coalition deal in which YB is allowed to vote against the version of the Haredi conscription bill that Liberman objects to. However, the Knesset is under a Supreme Court deadline (oft-extended) to pass something to replace the current law, and it is not clear if any majority can be found for one. Yet the Haredi parties insist that the law be “fixed” to protect their constituencies from being drafted, because the reversion point is a law they dislike even more (i.e., there would suddenly be a requirement for many more enlistments from the ultra-orthodox constituencies, which is something that even the army is not exactly clamoring for).

So, unless a compromise can be struck by Wednesday, it seems the train is in motion for Israel to have two general elections in the same year for the first time in its history.

And I guess that means I’d be asked by the editors to update my chapter on the electoral system for the almost in-press Oxford Handbook of Israeli Politics and Society yet again.

Candidates on closed lists: If only Glick had been ranked higher

I do this occasional series on party lists, and how candidates can matter, even when the list is closed (meaning voters can’t vote for a specific candidate, and the order in which candidates would be elected is set by the party, prior to the election).

Here is another one for the files.

An official of the New Right party in Israel has claimed that the party would have cleared the 3.25% threshold if only one of its candidates, Caroline Glick, had been ranked in the top 4. A party that clears the threshold gets 4 seats as a minimum. Glick, a US-born author, was ranked 6th.

The official making the claim is none other than Jeremy Saltan, whose polling aggregations I referred to throughout the campaign. He was New Right’s head of outreach to English-speaking voters.

Saltan is quoted in the Times of Israel as saying, “Already during the campaign Anglos told me they would have voted for us if we put her higher.”

Further, “Saltan said the party should have emphasized that it was the only party with a US-born candidate featured prominently on its slate and campaign.”

While I would tend to be a little skeptical of a claim like this, I would not rule it out. In the final results, the party missed the threshold by a slim margin, ending up with 3.22%. So it is possible that potential Anglo voters could have stayed with the party, rather than defect to Likud (or United Right or even Zehut) had they been more confident it would clear the threshold, and that Glick would be elected.

My main skepticism is that the party was generally polling at more than 4 seats, so if anything, the fact that she was individually marginal, but the party (allegedly) was not, should have encouraged more voters, not fewer, to favor New Right if they were otherwise wavering.

Anyway, it is always good to have another one for the “candidates matter, even in closed lists” file.