Israel government update and the likelihood of a 2021b election

It has been some time since I did an update on the election and government-formation process in Israel, 2021 (or, as I called it, 2021a, giving away my expectation that a 2021b was likely). The election was on 23 March, and as all readers likely know, it was the fourth election since an early call of elections was legislated at the end of 2018.

Since the March election, the government-formation process has been playing out in its usual manner. President Reuven Rivlin received recommendations from party leaders about who should be tasked to form a government. As expected, no candidate had recommendations from parties totaling 61 or more seats, but incumbent PM Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) had more than opposition leader Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), so he got the first nod. As everyone pretty much understood would happen, Netanyahu failed to cobble together a government. Arguably he did not even try very hard, “negotiating” mainly through press statements trying to shame leaders of small right-wing parties to rejoin his bloc. So, again as expected, Lapid received the mandate to try. And he most certainly has been trying hard. But as I write this he has one week remaining before his time expires.* If Lapid’s mandate expires with no government to present to the Knesset, there is a period in which any PM candidate can obtain 61 signatures from members of the Knesset and thus become PM. However, with two blocs (using the term loosely) having both failed to win 61 seats, such a path to a government is highly unlikely to work.

The attempt to strike an agreement with Yamina, whose head Naftali Bennett would have gone first as PM, with Lapid taking over after a year (based on the same Basic Law amendments that the aborted Netanyahu–Gantz rotation was to follow), seemed close to fruition as the second week of May began. It would have been a strange government, given Bennett’s party won only 7 seats to Lapid’s 17, and because it would span nearly the entire Israeli political spectrum, including one Arab party (most likely as an outside supporter to a minority government, not as a full cabinet partner). Then once Hamas decided to escalate ongoing tensions in Jerusalem (including over things such as those I was writing about a decade ago) by firing their terrorist rockets directly at the capital city on Jerusalem Day, the ensuing war led Bennett to get cold feet and abandon a plan that apparently was all but final. On the other hand, he apparently also never quite ruled out returning to the plan. For instance, he never said in front of cameras that the deal was off, and there was a letter on 20 May from major activists in Yamina calling for the party to avoid another election and back an anti-Bibi government. Just today Bennett has supposedly told Likud he will return to talking with Lapid about forming a government if Netanyahu can’t form one (which he can’t).

So the “change” government remains a possibility even now (given the cessation of hostilities after 11 days) and may remain so right up until Lapid’s mandate expires. Frankly, it was always uphill to to form this proposed government, and would be a challenge for it to last if it did form. Yet it is the only current option, aside from another election later this year. Bennett has claimed numerous times that he will do everything he can to prevent another election. He has claimed a lot of things, so no one really can claim to know what he will do. (This is sometimes a good negotiating tactic, although it seems to have failed badly for Bennett, and in any case it is a terrible trait in a governing partner.) Although it is easy to mock Bennett for his flip-flops, we should acknowledge that he is in a genuinely difficult place. He has spent the last several years carving out a niche for his party to the right of Likud on security matters, so he can’t appear too eager to form a government with left-wing parties and reliant on Arab support. Thus even if he has intended all along to back such a government–and who knows–he and his no. 2, Ayalet Shaked, would need to make a good show of “leaving no stone unturned to form a nationalist government” before signing up to a deal with Lapid and Labor, Meretz, and Ra’am.

The bottom line is that the election produced a genuine stalemate. Even if Yamina sides with Netanyahu, that is not a majority without Ra’am, the Islamist party that broke off from the Joint List and has a pragmatic leader, Mansour Abbas, who seeks to be relevant in Israeli politics (unlike the Joint List itself). Such a government would also need the Religious Zionist list, which has said repeatedly it opposes any cooperation with Ra’am. The parties we are talking about here for a potential right-wing government are Likud (30 seats), the Haredi parties–Shas (9) and UTJ (7), Yamina (7)–plus Religious Zionist (6). These reach only 59 seats, hence the need for Ra’am (4) to back it; and, yes, Ra’am is certainly a right wing party within Arab Israeli politics, particularly on matters of social/religious policy. There is also New Hope (6), the party formed by Gideon Sa’ar and other Likud defectors. Obviously, if they joined, it would obviate the need to have the backing of Ra’am. However, Sa’ar has said over and over that he will not back Netanyahu. The entire reason his party formed was to offer an option for Likud without Bibi. While one should never rule anything out, and reports occasionally circulate that he is talking with Bibi, he looks like he just might mean it when he says no.

The “change” government would be Lapid (17), Blue and White (8), Labor (7), Yisrael Beiteinu (7), Meretz (6) New Hope (6), plus 6** from Yamina. Together, that “bloc” of left and right parties would have 58 seats, hence the inability to form a government without backing of Ra’am (who remains “brave” in evidently being willing to do a deal despite the violence of recent weeks). If Yamina is really out of this group, then that leaves it on only 51 seats, ten seats short. Yes, the two Arab lists just happen to combine for 10 seats, but it is highly unlikely that the Joint List is going to be part of such a government. And it is just as unlikely that the either or both Haredi parties are going to defect from the Bibi bloc to lend Lapid a hand.

I concluded my preview of the last election by saying, ” I don’t see a government being formed from this mess… the safe call is continuing deadlock and a 2021b election being necessary.” While that almost proved too pessimistic as of early May, and maybe yet will be shown to be the wrong call, it still could end up that way.

Finally, because this is Fruits and Votes, I want to highlight just how crazy the fragmentation was in the 2021(a) election. Throughout the three elections of 2019-20 the party system had reached a period of being almost exactly as fragmented as expected for its electoral system, as emphasized in my chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Israeli Politics and Society. In my post-election blog post, I even called the 2019a election “a totally normal election” based on the effective number of seat-winning parties being just over five and the largest party having 29% of the seats. These are almost precisely what we expect from the Seat Product Model (SPM) for such a high seat product (120-seat assembly elected in a single district). The indicators stayed in that general range for the next two elections. But check out the disruption of that trend in 2021! This graph is an updated version of the plots in the Handbook chapter (also a version of this was shown in the just-linked earlier post following 2019a).

The plots, for four party-system indicators, show lines for observed values over time with the expected values from the SPM marked by the horizontal solid line in each plot. The dashed line marks the mean for the entire period, through 2021a. Vertical lines mark changes in electoral-system features other than the district magnitude and assembly size–specifically formula changes or threshold increases.

Look at those spikes in the plots of the top row! The number of seat-winning lists (not parties, per se, given that many lists actually are alliances of two or more parties) jumped to 13, and the effective number to 8.52, almost as high as in 1999 (8.69). In 1999, a key reason for the spike was the directly elected PM, which freed voters to vote sincerely rather than for their preferred PM party in Knesset elections. In 2021, it is a product of the breakup of Blue and White (which happened as soon as the “unity” government was formed), the breakaway New Hope, the split of the Labor-Meretz list that contested the 2020 election, and Ra’am splitting from the (Dis)Joint List.

In the bottom row at left we see the corresponding collapse in the size of the largest party, although not quite to the depths reached a few times previously. In the lower right, we see a new record for lowest deviation from proportionality, thanks to no parties just missing the threshold (as happened in 2019a spectacularly and to a lesser degree in the subsequent election).

If there is a 2021b, will the fragmentation again be this high? The number of seat-winning lists could very well turn downward again as some parties re-enter pre-election pacts. On the other hand, as long as the Bibi-or-no cleavage continues to cross-cut all the others, it is entirely possible that fragmentation will remain “unnaturally” high. Barring Bennett and Lapid getting back together in the next week, we will find out later this year. And if that happens, then in the meantime, Bibi would continue benefitting from the stalemate.

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* By coincidence, Rivlin’s successor as president will be elected by the Knesset the same day Lapid’s current mandate to form a government expires.

** Yamina won 7 seats but one of the party’s MKs has said he will not support the government that was being negotiated with Lapid. Today he said his position has not changed.

Candidacy for prime minister

In presidential systems, it is clear who is a candidate for the position of heading government–anyone who enters the election as a formal candidate for president. What about in a parliamentary system? This seems like a trick question. I assume it is straightforward: A person who is the leader of a party can be assumed to be a candidate for prime minister.

We might qualify that definition of candidacy for prime minister by saying it only applies to the leaders of parties expected to be among the largest in the election. Perhaps leaders of clearly minor or sectarian parties can be dismissed as candidates for the post as they are deemed as highly unlikely to claim the post. However, in presidential systems, we would not define someone on the ballot as “not a candidate” just because he or she was considered unlikely to win the job. Is the standard different in parliamentary systems?

As a starting point, I do not really think it should be. “Candidates” who finish second, third, or even lower in votes in parliamentary elections occasionally do end up as prime minister, whereas only in very rare cases can anyone lower than second in votes become president (and being second in a final or sole round of voting can be sufficient currently only in the USA.*)

Our default, then, should be that, absent a good reason to believe some party is uninterested in heading the government, or no parties would ever let it do so, or that someone other than whoever is the formal party leader is likely to be prime minister should the party be able to fill the post, any party leader is a candidate for prime minister. However, this default may be incorrect, at least in the political discourse of any given parliamentary system.

Take the case of Israel 2021(a?). Twice during the campaign, statements about candidacy for prime minister have entered the media and inter-party conversation. In early March, Yamina leader Naftali Bennett made a statement that he was indeed a candidate for prime minister. At the time, my reaction was basically, no kidding. While his party would likely be too small for its leader to be PM, it does sometimes happen that some party within a coalition other than the largest provides the PM, and Bennett is his party’s leader and top-ranked candidate. Therefore, he is a candidate. Yet he felt there was political advantage in asserting so. In other words, what I called the “default” evidently is not.

Then more recently, Benjamin Netanyahu (the incumbent PM, leader of Likud, and most definitely a candidate for the top post in this election) said he would not debate opposition leader Yair Lapid unless the latter declares he is a candidate for prime minister. I do not think anyone doubts that Lapid is a candidate for the post, but somehow he has to utter the words in order for the incumbent to debate him. The back-story here is that Lapid has been trying to avoid a head-to-head fight and simply position himself as part of a broad replace-Bibi block, and not appear too ambitious to get the job himself. He has implied that he would accept not being PM even if his party, Yesh Atid, were to be the biggest party in the anti-Likud bloc. All polls for many weeks have said the party will be the largest such party, but Lapid is not ruling out allowing someone else–presumably either New Hope leader Gideon Saar or even Bennett–to take the post if that is what is needed to replace Netanyahu. Regardless of declarations, isn’t Lapid clearly a PM candidate? Yes!

So I am genuinely puzzled by contention over which party leaders formally declare themselves to be candidate for prime minister and which ones do not. I wonder if questions of this sort come up often in other parliamentary campaigns.

(Note: I hope to get a pre-election preview post up as I have done for Israeli elections back to 2006 or so. The election is this coming Tuesday, so time is getting short. Anyway, for now, I guess this is the pre-election post. But watch for another possible one.)

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* Bolivia once had a president who had finished third in the sole round of popular voting. This was possible because the rule at the time was the congress selected from the top three if none had a majority. Later the rule was changed to two-round popular majority.