Israel 2019 update: fragmentation on the right

As I noted in my initial post about the 2019 Israel election, not only is division on the left not the reason the (center-)left likely will not win, but the right is divided, too. From the excellent Twitter feed of Lahav Harkov (a journalist for the Jerusalem Post), comes this nugget:

BREAKING Former IDF Chief Rabbi Rafi Peretz is the new leader of Bayit Yehudi.

Interestingly, in Netanyahu’s response to this, he called on Bayit Yehudi to unite with National Union and Otzma L’Yisrael – aka the Kahane party. He said they need to unite so right-wing votes don’t fall under the threshold and lead to a left-wing govt being formed.

So this got me wondering, in parliamentary politics (Israel or elsewhere), how often does the leader of one party call on the leader of another party to make a pre-election alliance with yet other parties?

First case I can think of!

And, yes, Netanyahu is right to be worried about this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.