Unhappy coalition partners make for very quotable politicians

There is a coalition crisis in Israel–or at least a lot of posturing. The immediate issue is a bill that would restructure the state broadcasting authority. But usually these things are about something other than what they are claimed to be about. In any case, the point of this post is not to comment on the substantive issues, but to draw out some very nice quotes by politicians unhappy with something or other in the coalition bargain. These come from an article in Hamodia.

Likud MK Oren Chazan said that smaller parties in the coalition knew how to make demands to fulfill their agenda, but were less amenable to helping the Likud carry out its agenda. “We bend over backwards to help them, but when it comes to helping us carry out our platform they are nowhere to be found. This hurts us with our voters, and small parties have to realize that being in a coalition is a matter not only of taking, but of giving.”

The article goes on to say that PM Netanyahu sees the role of Finance Minister as too “prestigious” for Moshe Kahlon, given how little his party, Kulanu is, and how badly that party is doing in current polling. Then there is this from Transport Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud):

There are no differences of opinion in the coalition on the really important matters. You don’t call new elections over which broadcasting company will remain in business. There is no support in the Likud for this.

Culture Minister Miri Regev (Likud) offers a somewhat different take on whether there is consensus in the coalition–or even the party–over that very question:

No one in the Likud is afraid of elections. Let the public decide whether or not coalition agreements should be respected. We cannot have a situation where each time the Likud asks that its agreements be enforced we get excuses from our partners as to why they should not be enforced. This is not about the IBC versus the IBA, but about the principle of coalition agreements.

[IBA and IBC are the Israeli Broadcasting Authority and Corporation, respectively.]

Finally, despite his own periodic threats to leave the coalition, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennet says, “I call on everyone to act with responsibility and prevent expensive and unnecessary elections that will harm Israel’s economy and our citizenry.” In other words, don’t take my previous threats seriously.

Coalition bargaining often occurs before an audience. And that audience can be treated to some really nice quotations!

Various recent polls show it could be a close call for largest party between Likud and opposition party Yesh Atid if an election were held now.


Campaign effects vs. ‘fundamentals’–Israel 2015 edition

There is a controversy within political science about the relative importance of campaign events versus “fundamentals” (whatever those might be in a given contest). There certainly is a literature on this matter in the American politics field. I do not know if there is for Israel, but apparently there should be.

An article in Al Monitor that appeared just over a month before the 17 March, 2015, election claimed that the “rotation” deal between Isaac Herzog and Tipi Livni, as heads of Zionist Camp, had hurt the center-left’s chances of winning the election. A typical quote, regarding the role of “highly respected advertising executive Reuven Adler”, called in “to rebuild the image of Zionist Camp Co-Chairman Isaac Herzog”:

Adler had thought that Livni exacerbates all of the weaknesses of Herzog, who from the outset was never perceived by the public as a strong leader. After all, he lacks charisma and a dominant personality. He looks delicate, and his voice lacks gravitas. In Adler’s mind, the very fact that Herzog agreed to a rotation agreement only intensified perceptions of him as a weak, docile individual who succumbs to pressure. Worst of all, it showed him as someone aware of his weakness.

…Adler was left out of this discussion, and an enthusiastic Herzog-Livni campaign soon hit the streets. Herzog’s Labor Party remained silent as long as the polls showed the Zionist Camp with a slight advantage over the Likud.

The article is full of claims like this–focusing on events and leadership choices, and suggesting that in the final month the Zionist Camp will push Livni into the background in order to try to regain a campaign momentum that it has been losing.

What is wrong with all this? The polling trends offer scant evidence for it. At least as best I can see.

Israel 2015 poll trends

The above (click on it for a larger version, although even then it is hard to read) is from J-Stret’s election blog. From the time of the agreement on the rotation deal (around Dec. 10) until late January, the Zionist Camp and Likud trade places and are quite steady. Perhaps both are rising a bit, and Zionist Camp even reaches 26 seats briefly in late January (as does Likud). From early February until the end of the sequence of this graph (Feb. 22), Zionist Camp is right around 24 seats. In the election, it won… 24 seats. So, just when the campaign is supposedly in this crisis and needs to push Livni to the background, there was no change in its actual performance with voters. Likud, on the other hand, shows more volatility in February, but was on an upward trajectory, it appears. As we now know, it indeed was moving up, and ended up on 30 seats, although most of that surge appears really to have happened in the final days, due to desertion of the farther-right parties.

It is hard to look at the polling trends and conclude that the campaign tactics and evaluations of Herzog’s leadership qualities were a major factor. That is, other than the agreement on the pact itself, which does seem to have shaken things up, and moved Labor+HaTnua into the 22-25 seat range, where it stayed all the way to the actual election.

Seats by bloc: Israel 2015 vs. 2013

An important lesson from this week’s Israeli election: in complex multi-bloc political systems, the government that forms really is at least as much about the inter-party bargaining between elections as it is about the elections themselves.

Yesterday I noted the (small) changes in votes for the right, Here I will look at all the blocs. Note: blocs, plural–point being, there is no single left or center-left bloc to oppose the right or replace it as government. Caution: the 2015 results are not yet official.

Labor won 15 seats in 2013, and Tzipi Livni’s HaTnuah won 6. The blended list of these two forces (branded Zionist Union) is at 24 in the preliminary results of this election. [some correction of sloppy writing since original posting]

By contrast, the main parties of the right, Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Bayit Yehudi, appear to have won 44 seats in this election. They won 43 in 2013 (when the first two of these had a blended list).

Yes, that is a net gain of 3 for the center-left and a net gain of 1 for the right. Such a landslide for Bibi!

We should add Meretz to the left bloc; this party won 6 seats in 2013 and looks to have 5 in 2015. So that would bring the net gain to this larger definition of the left down to 2.

The ultra-orthodox (Haredi) parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, combine for 13 seats. That is a fairly substantial drop from 18 in 2013.

The Joint List of Arab parties and the Jewish-Arab party, Hadash, is currently on 13 seats, whereas the three separate lists presented by this bloc (if we can even call it that, other than for threshold-clearing purposes this time) won 11 in 2013.

And then there is the assemblage of centrist parties (not counting Linvi’s, which we already accounted for): Yesh Atid, Kadima, and Kulanu. These parties combined for 21 seats (19 of them for Yesh Atid) in 2013. They also have 21 in this election, with Kadmia no longer in existence and Kulanu new to the scene.

Toting things up by bloc, from winners to losers:

    Arab +2
    Left +2
    Right +1
    Center +/- 0
    Haredi -5

Not much change, but the smallest gainer and biggest loser have enough to form a government, when combined with the centrist (or soft right) Kulanu.

The real difference in government outcomes will be less the voting patterns having shifted than shifts since 2013 in inter-party relations. In 2013, the election outcome would have allowed a right-Haredi coalition with the absolute bare majority of seats, 61. For various reasons, Likud leader and PM Benjamin Netanyahu preferred to bring into the coalition the election’s biggest seat gainer, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (who had 19 seats). Lapid and Naftali Bennet, leader of Bayit Yehudi, however, jointly thwarted the inclusion of the Haredi parties, having both campaigned (for their own reasons) in favor of “equalizing the burden” (ending military exemptions for the ultra-orthodox). Netanyahu never wanted this coalition, and seized upon various (largely manufactured) policy disagreements in late 2014 to un-do the government and force an early election. And now he can form a coalition with his natural partners, and with a likely more pliant centrist force in Kulanu. This latter party is headed by a former Likud minister and includes a former ambassador to the US (who served under Netanyahu).

Bottom line: There is no big shift to the right whatsoever in this election. But, with Shas and UTJ replacing Lapid and Livni, there will be a shift in both a right and religiously Orthodox direction to the governing coalition.

Israeli election results

I’ve been silent on the Israeli election partly because I’ve been on the road, and partly because I’m pretty upset with the result. But having read a few overhyped op-eds and other posts, I figured it was time to offer a little perspective.

Lost in all the hyperbole are a few small facts:

(1) Likud gained primarily at the expense of parties further to the right. Consider that the combined Likud-Bayit Yehudi-Yisrael Beiteinu vote in this election is just short of 35%. In 2013, these parties amounted to 32.4%. Not exactly a massive swing to the right, as it is being portrayed. But Likud alone won just over 23% this time, whereas the blended list of Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu won about that much last time, while Bayit Yehudi fell from 9.1% to 6.4%. Strategic voting happens even under extreme PR!.

(2) This campaign never offered a realistic path to a center-left government. Remember, Bibi chose the timing of this election, and he’s not stupid or a big risk-taker.

(3) There wasn’t going to be a negotiated agreement on a Palestinian state in the next few years under a Herzog premiership anyway.

Four days to election, Likud still looks hard to beat

A poll by Smith/Resget Blue on 13 March is one of the most favorable polls yet for the main center-left list, Zionist Camp (Labor + Livni + Greens). And even so, I still can’t see how you get to the necessary 61 to form a majority coalition without combining parties that are quite unlikely to agree to sit together.

That is, even with a 4-seat deficit, Likud retains the easier path to successful completion of coalition bargaining.

This does not stop reporters from writing things like this:

Israel’s center-left opposition is poised for an upset victory in next week’s parliamentary election, with the last opinion polls before Tuesday’s vote giving it a solid lead over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party. (Reuters)

The election is Tuesday. There could still be an upset center-left victory, but it would require some surprising coalition choices over the next month or so, not merely a lead for Zionist Camp on election night.

Israel coalition possibilities

Jeremy Saltan summarizes the key messages of an Israeli party leaders’ debate held the last week of February. He observes that much of the debate focused around the stages after the seats are allocated: the recommendation of a formateur (party leader who will attempt to assemble a coalition) and which parties a given party would, or would not, agree to sit with. Examining these public commitments can offer clues to where the cabinet formation process is headed.

Of course, politicians have incentives to appear committed to extract a better deal, so no statement of refusal to take a given partner absolutely rules out such a partnership. On the other hand, to break a commitment, a party leader is likely to demand just that–a better deal. Thus we can assume that statements of intent before an election are signals that rise farther above the noise than most: breaking them is not costless, either for the party whose leader made the statement, or for potential partners who have to give up something important to make a deal.

These statements matter, because the path to a majority coalition for the Zionist Union (Labor + HaTnua) is so narrow. Zionist Union currently looks to win around 24 seats. A majority coalition headed by Zionist Union, but not including Likud, would start with the following parties, with their likely seats indicated*: Meretz (5), Kulanu (8), Yesh Atid (12). At this point we are at 49, meaning 12 more are needed. The most likely place is the ultra-Orthdox parties, of which we have three this time, although one of them (Yachad) is polling just barely at the threshold (4 seats). The other two, Shas and UTJ are combining for 13-14 seats. Obviously, that’s good enough, we are over 61.

But wait! Yesh Atid leader, Yair Lapid, built much of his campaign in 2013 and his party’s record in government around “equalizing the burden”, meaning the reduction of draft exemptions and other policy benefits to the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox). In fact, he and Bayit Yehudi (otherwise a right-wing religious-nationalist party) vetoed the inclusion of the Haredi parties in the last government. Would he agree to serve in a cabinet with them this time to block a Likud-led government? Don’t count on it. Summarizing the statements of Lapid in the debate, Saltan concludes, “Lapid crushed Herzog’s dream of having both of them in the same coalition.” The refusals come from the other side, too, as Shas’s leader Aryeh “Deri made it clear he will sit with anyone including Eli Yishai [Shas defector now heading Yachad], but he won’t sit with Yair Lapid”.

So we are back at 49-50 seats, with either Yesh Atid or the Haredi parties out. Where are the other 12 (or 11) coming from? There is only one bloc not on the right that could have that number of seats: the Joint List, which is made up of the Arab parties (including Hadash, which has one Jewish MK). These are non-Zionist parties. Can they make a coalition with a party that brands itself as Zionist Union? Can Zionist Union bring them in? I’d say no. There could be “understandings” by which the Joint List’s parties agree to try to block a Likud-led coalition and to support a ZU-led government on specific issues, but it is almost impossible to imagine a ZU-led coalition that needs those seats for its governing and budget-making majority. But don’t listen to me, listen to the leaders. “The Joint List’s Iman Udah refused to commit to helping Herzog in Phase 2 (formateur recommendation) or 3 (coalition making)”, says Saltan. So, refusing to commit to help is not the same as won’t help, but it is not exactly a lifeline you’d want to count on. Herzog himself says he has not ruled out the Arab parties. Still, it is quite a stretch to believe he would be dependent on them. Moreover, it is entirely possible that even if Herzog and the Joint List reached agreement, he’d lose Lapid and/or Kahlon, and quite likely the Haredim.** (All this despite the fact that the Arab parties might win more seats than ever, thanks to the Joint List, and a poll showing a majority of Arab voters want the Joint List in government. The bottom line is that the Joint List was formed to cope with the threshold increase, not to be part of the government of Israel.)

Where else are the seats coming from? There isn’t a path to a ZU-led, Likud-free government. Simple as that. Unless the polls change a lot in the last two weeks, Likud will be in the government.

Note, I did not say Likud will lead the government. How about a ZU-Likud coalition. This would control around 47 seats. I see no reason why Yesh Atid and Kulanu would not clamber on board. That’s 67 seats. So it could happen. However, in the past week, “Prime Minister Netanyahu posted on his Facebook page and Twitter that he will not join a coalition with the Zionist Union”. So, it appears ruled out. On the other hand, what if he finishes second, and Herzog makes a public declaration for unity? Who knows!

It is not as if the largest party gets the first chance to attempt to form a government. Just ask Livni! She led Likud by a seat in 2009, but there was clearly a right-wing bloc with a majority and so Likud led the coalition that formed, leaving Livni’s Kadima isolated (or in sweet disconnect, as I put it at the time). That could easily happen again: Likud (23), Bayit Yehudi (12), Kulanu (8), Yisrael Beiteinu (6), Haredim (12+). Where things get interesting is if some of the above parties abstain from recommending Bibi Netanyahu to be formateur. Consider that the parties just named (minus Kulanu, which did not exist) had a majority in the outgoing Knesset; if they were all eager to govern together, they could have done so without this election. Thus there are several parties that could be open to a government not led by Likud, but it is unlikely that such a government would exclude Likud, for the reasons noted previously. Thus the most likely outcome remains a Likud-led government in which the Haredim are involved, Yesh Atid is not, and Yisrael Beiteinu is much diminished (but still pivotal). That actually would be a fairly different government from the one that formed after the 2013 election, but the man in the PM’s chair would remain the same.


* See the first link. I am using the numbers Saltan provides from the “poll of polls” for the week ending 28 February.

** Saltan again: Deri of Shas “said there is no partner for peace with the Palestinians and rejected [Joint List leader] Iman Udah’s offer to work together if Udah remains focused on the Palestinian issue.”