Coordination failure under nationwide PR: Manufactured majority in Israel 2022

The votes are not yet final from the 1 November 2022 Israeli general election, but the outcome is quite clear. The right-wing bloc of parties supporting current opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu will have won a manufactured majority. Media are calculating the bloc’s combined seats at 65 out of 120. Yet the bloc currently has just 48.1% of the votes.* That is actually lower than the clear majority of the vote they got in April, 2019, yet at that election the result was deadlock while this one will produce a majority coalition government. What explains the difference? Coordination.

The reason for the manufactured majority in this election, despite a nationwide proportional representation electoral system, is coordination failure. The strategic choices of political leaders and voters in both the left and the Arab political camps have made Netanyahu’s impending return to government possible. On the left, Labor has barely cleared the 3.25% legal threshold, with 3.56% as of now (around 20:30 Israel time), while Meretz is below, at 3.19% (and its percentage has declined in recent hours as more votes are counted*). Even if–as appears unlikely–Meretz ultimately clears, and thus wins 4 seats instead of zero, it would not drop the right below 61 seats. For that to happen, it would also be necessary that all three Arab lists in this election cleared the threshold. But Balad is sitting on only 3.03%, so that looks at least as unlikely.

Had Balad stayed in alliance with the remnant Joint List (i.e., Hadash-Tal, which won 3.93%) and had Meretz either won just enough to clear the threshold or formed an alliance list with Labor, as Interim PM Yair Lapid openly encouraged, the additional seats won by these camps surely would have blocked Netanyahu from winning. Then there either would have been some unexpected coalition possibilities emerging, or another election next spring, with Lapid of the Yesh Atid party remaining Prime Minister during that time (and until a new government eventually formed). Thus it is hard to exaggerate just how much the left and Arab political camps blew it–assuming blocking the return of Netanyahu was important to them. (Frankly, I doubt Balad’s leaders care, although many of their voters must, and leftist leaders and voters alike surely do.)

I should add here that the third piece of the former Joint List, Ra’am, which backed the outgoing government, cleared the threshold easily with the highest vote percentage of any of the three Arab lists (4.34%). This appears to be vindication for leader Mansour Abbas’s consistent message over the last two years of normalizing Arab participation in national governance; in 2021 Ra’am had 3.79%. I will count this as one piece of good news from the election.

In some respects, this year’s outcome is a mirror image of the first of this recent run of frequent elections, in April 2019. In that first of two elections in 2019, the right suffered a coordination failure when New Right fell just below the threshold, with 3.22% of the vote. In that election, the combined right-wing vote was 55.4% if we include Yisrael Beiteinu or 51.44% if we do not. But the non-Likud, non-Haredi right was splintered: Union of Right-Wing Parties (3.70), Kulanu (3.54), New Right (3.22), and Zehut (2.74). Thus the right bloc had only 60 seats, or with Yisrael Beiteinu (4.01% of the vote) included, 65. Had New Right cleared the threshold, the combination without YB would have been 61 or 62, depriving YB leader Avigdor Lieberman of the pivotal position. (It was only after the election that he earnestly said no to the coalitions with Haredi parties that he had willingly been part of up to a few months before.) Thus coordination failure on the right probably prevented a right-Haredi government from forming in 2019, and kicked off the four-election cycle of deadlock and attempted “unity” governments.

In this year’s election, coordination on the right returned in a big way. The non-Likud, non-Haredi right was almost entirely consolidated on one list, that of Religious Zionism, which won 10.31% of the vote and probably 14 seats. There will be much consternation and condemnation over the prominent role that RZ leaders Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir will play in the likely new government. Much of it will be deserved. They are genuine extremists. However, it will be portrayed as a far-right surge when it really only is the non-Likud, non-Haredi electorate converging on its only viable option. Consider that in the 2021 election, RZ won 6 seats (5.12% of the vote) and Yamina won 7 seats (6.21% of the vote). That is 13 seats and just over 11% of the vote. This time the remaining option will have actually lost vote share while picking up (apparently) one seat. It is not a far-right surge, it is a right-wing coordination success. To these votes we could also add Jewish Home, now led by Ayalet Shaked, which won 1.16% of the votes–far below the threshold, but suggesting the combined vote share for this more-rightwing-than-Likud flavor of politics basically did not change.

It is quite striking how much of the movement from utter coordination failure on the right in 2019 to smashing coordination success in 2022 is the story of Naftali Bennet and Ayalet Shaked and their supporters. Their gambit in 2019 was that there was political space for a strongly right-wing option that is less tied to the old religious Zionist parties, represented at the time by the Jewish Home alliance (in which both were prominent figures and Netanyahu coalition partners). But for a very small number of votes, they could have been vindicated, but instead the last three and a half years turned this on its head, with the list of Religious Zionism commandeering this segment of the vote in 2022. On the way here, Bennet and, more reluctantly, Shaked tried another gambit, teaming up with Yesh Atid, Labor, Meretz, Ra’am, and Yisrael Beiteinu (among others) on the “change” government. Bennet was at the time leader of Yamina, which did not even run in this election. We could say it was hardly a party at all, in terms of the disciplined outfit we’d expect of a party providing the prime minister, as it did for the initial period of the government formed in 2021. It only shed members of Knesset and voters from the moment it announced the coalition. And now its voters have a home and a government, in the form of the most hardline party to have entered any of Netanyahu’s cabinets to date.

As for the left, Labor and Meretz refused to forge an alliance. This is understandable, but also blew up on them in a big way. They had run on an alliance list in the March, 2020, election and won only 7 seats and less than 6% of the votes. Compare that to 11 seats (and over 9% of the vote) in September, 2019, for their separate lists and then in 2021, 13 seats (and combined 10.7% of votes) for their again separate lists. Thus they have reason to believe that together they are worth less than the sum of their parts–conditional on their two separate parts clearing the threshold! In this election they combine for only 6.75% of votes and 4 seats–8 if Meretz ultimately squeaks over the threshold as now seems unlikely. It was a gamble, and it looks to have failed.

There are already recriminations against Lapid for not properly “managing” the center-left bloc (see under “cannibalistic pig“). But he tried to encourage a Labor-Meretz alliance and was rebuffed. I am not in position to say whether he could have done more to prevent center-left voters from choosing him over his threshold-challenged partners. It seems to me that’s not really the bigger party leader’s job, even though it was obviously in his interests that both win seats. Once the Labor and Meretz leaders concluded they could clear the threshold running alone, it was incumbent on them to deliver their votes.

Frankly, it seems that Labor and Meretz are yesterday’s news, and they should either merge or fold. The future of the center-left is Yesh Atid. Over seven elections in just under a decade, Yesh Atid has proven it is not just another centrist flash in the pan, but a serious option with staying power and organization. It is, nonetheless, unlikely ever to be the head of a center-left/Arab government. As the 2021 experience shows, you need a party of the right to cross over and make that a majority (or you’d need Ra’am or some other cooperation-minded Arab party to supplant Hadash-Tal and Balad). It is not clear where another right-wing splinter could come from; it won’t be from the right of Likud, and there just isn’t a “soft right” anymore to its immediate left. Maybe after Netanyahu finally leaves the scene there will be. The future of the center-left is thus probably mainly as a potential coalition partner to a post-Netanyahu Likud, and it would be better for it to be one strong partner than to be fragmented into Yesh Atid and two minnows farther to the left (if they both could clear again in a future contest), plus whatever becomes of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White. (The latter is the real “soft right” in the current party system, but is already firmly tied to the center-left as of now.)

Many supporters of proportional representation in the US, Canada, and elsewhere speak as if PR means no need for strategic electoral behavior. The Israeli experience of 2019 through 2022 shows the folly of such belief. Coordination is still important, especially if there are any significant contra-proportional features to the PR system. And usually there are–sometimes in the form of moderate district magnitude, and sometimes–as in Israel–in the form of a moderately high legal threshold, despite nationwide PR. The right had the coordination this time that it lacked in 2019, whereas the left and Arab sectors in this election did not. And thus a bloc will have the parliamentary majority and government despite not having won a majority of the vote.

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Update: With around 99% counted, it is now 64 seats (53.3%) on 48.4% of the vote. Meretz shrank farther from the threshold and is at 3.16%.

Israel 2021a preview

Israel’s general election is 23 March. To give away the punch line, I will note the subject line calls this the “2021a” election. That’s because the final polls point to continuing deadlock, and a high chance that there will be a 2021b later this year.

Of course, such a result is not inevitable. Maybe the polls will be off just enough to give one of the blocs a majority of seats. Or maybe there will be surprises after the election, with some party or parties willing to join a bloc that they seemed to have ruled out up to now. But we probably should take a second election this year as the most likely outcome, based on current information.

Jeremy’s Knesset Insider offers the summaries of all public polls. I took the average of all the polls released on either the 18th or 19th of March. The average of these seven polls shows Likud, headed by PM Benjamin Netanyahu, on 30.7 seats, ranging 29-32. (For perspective, it has 36 from the last election.) The second largest party in all polls is Yesh Atid, headed by Yair Lapid, averaging 18.3 and ranging 17-19.

New Hope, headed by ex-Likud senior MK and minister, Gideon Sa’ar, has stumbled late and is now on an average of 8.9, ranging 7-10. It has been narrowly passed by Yamina, headed by Naftali Bennett, averaging 9.3 and ranging 8-10. We can’t say for sure, but it looks like there has been a recent tendency of some intended Yamina and New Hope voters to go (back) the core party of the right, Likud.

All polls show thirteen lists clearing the 3.25% threshold, with one exception. The final Maagar Machot poll has Ra’am falling below. No final poll has the other “on the bubble” lists failing to clear–Meretz, Blue & White, and Religious Zionist all get 4 or 5 seats in every one of these polls. For perspective, there were 8 lists in the last Knesset (although several of these split as soon as the “unity” government was formed); the Seat Product Model expects 11, on average (and that is indeed about what the long-term average has been).

The most important consideration is, of course, the blocs: which group of reasonably like-minded parties can reach 61 seats, a majority in the Knesset? Actually, there really is only one bloc that acts as such in any coherent way, and that is the “Bibi bloc.” At this point, we can count only three lists as fully part of that bloc, and a fourth with an asterisk. For sure, Likud, United Torah Judaism (UTJ), and Shas will govern together if they can find sufficient allies to form a government. Most likely, the Religious Zionist (RZ) list can be counted in, but not necessarily all of it. RZ is an alliance that includes the Kahanist/racist Otzma Yehudit and the anti-gay (among other antis) and misnamed Noam (the name means pleasantness). When they formed this alliance, they called it a “technical bloc” meaning the parties were only allied for purposes of jointly clearing the threshold (and being part of a surplus vote-sharing agreement signed with Likud, which could help the latter earn an additional seat under the Israeli electoral formula).

Netanyahu says Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the Otzma Yehudit party, will not be in his government. So, if we take him at his word, we should deduct one seat from their total for purposes of summing up the bloc. It is worth noting, however, that saying Ben-Gvir won’t himself sit in the government is not the same as ruling out a government that needs his seat to get to 61, although we can assume Netanyahu would prefer not to have a government that would fall if he failed to appease Ben-Gvir (and he should feel the same way about Noam, but their candidate is 11th on the list and thus Noam will contribute only votes, not one of the seats). When it comes to retaining power, however, he may make “unpleasant” deals.

Having said all of that, the average total for the bloc in these final polls are just 45.9 for Likud plus the two Haredi parties (range 44-47), and 50.7 (49-53) for these parties plus the full RZ. If Yamina joins, you get 60.0 (60 in all polls but one that has the combo at 61) if you also include all of RZ, or 55.1 (ranging 54-56) if you exclude RZ.

All through this campaign, Yamina leader Bennett has been non-committal. He has sat in opposition since a government was finally formed after the March, 2020 election. He has called himself a candidate for Prime Minister. While he has said he will not serve in a government headed by Lapid, he has not said he would not serve in a government that includes Lapid’s party and others outside the Bibi bloc. Bennett pointedly refused to sign a pledge to be part of Netanyahu’s government. Most observers, myself included, assume Bennett would join Bibi if his doing so would get to 61 seats. But he also likely would join a government of non-Bibi parties if he got a better deal. The problem is that those parties may not be in a position to offer a better deal–or any deal at all.

The core opposition that might form a government, including only Zionist parties, reaches an average of only 48.4 seats without Yamina; the range in polls is 48-50. This counts Yesh Atid, New Hope, Yisrael Beiteinu (headed by Avigdor Liberman and formerly part of the Bibi bloc), Blue & White (Benny Gantz), and on the left, Labor, and Meretz. That is six parties, with plenty of policy and personality differences between them, and still well short. Even if Yamina joins, they have only 57.7 (ranging 56-60).

Hence my conclusion that there will be a second election later in 2021. If the polls are not considerably off at the bloc level, the only way a second election will be avoided is if some currently unexpected coalition or support deals emerge.

A deal for a Bibi-bloc government could potentially include Ra’am, which is a party that was previously part of the Joint List (of Arab parties). This is the religious-conservative (Islamist) party that never belonged on the “left” even though as part of the Joint List (which includes Israel’s former communist party) it was routinely classified as part of the left. The party and its leader, Mansour Abbas, has made various policy deals with Netanyahu and seems open to doing so in the next Knesset. Netanyahu has said, however, that he will not form a government dependent on the party for its survival. Would he break that? Would Bennett go along? Well, it may be a purely academic question, as no final poll has this combination at 61 (average 58.6, range 55-60).

Would the grand anti-Bibi alliance accept dependence on Ra’am and/or the Joint List to sustain a government? It seems unlikely–these parties, or at least the Joint List, do not even want to be responsible for forming and sustaining the government of Israel. It is even more unlikely if Yamina is needed, as it surely would be. Even if we take both Arab lists, but not Yamina, we do not get 61 except in one poll (Panels for Maariv), and the average is 60.

A possibility is that Blue & White would go with Bibi again. However, it is a close call whether this would work. If it does not include RZ, but does include Yamina, it averages only 59.7, but the range is 59-63; only one final poll has it over 60. If RZ is added (presumably minus both Otzma and Noam) you can add three or four seats and the bloc has over 61 in all recent polls. (I hesitate to entertain the prospect of New Hope being the one to put Likud over the top. I just don’t see it happening. But if it did, and Yamina was a part of it, it hits 64 on average, with range of 62 to 65.)

A sort of wild card idea is Shas breaks its commitment to Bibi when it is clear no such government can form. This averages 66 seats! It would hard for Shas to sit with Yesh Atid and even harder for it to be with Yisrael Beiteinu. Shas is generally more flexible than UTJ, but it is has been a while since the two went separate ways. If Yesh Atid and allies also brought in UTJ somehow, a government could be formed without needing the now ultra-secular Yisrael Beitneinu. It would result in an average of 65.4. However, it would be hard to imagine all these parties being able to serve with Meretz. The good news is that even without Meretz, these parties combine for 61.3 on average, with only one poll having them below 61 and two having them on 63. So there you have it, a seven-party non-Likud coalition it at least imaginable! It would not be easy or stable, however.

Earlier in the campaign there was much “new hope” that a grand opposition alliance of Zionist parties of left and right could displace the Bibi bloc. As recently as the Panels/103FM poll of 15 March, such a combo had a bare majority (61 seats). But with no final poll showing them at 61 and only one as high as 60, it looks unlikely. Maybe this group of parties will out-perform its final polls. But if not, I don’t see a government being formed from this mess. Israeli politics often surprises me, so maybe it will again, but the safe call is continuing deadlock and a 2021b election being necessary.

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.