Has enough changed to prevent a third election?

With a second election only five months after the last one, it’s tempting to think that not much has changed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Zehut party leader Moshe Feiglin hold a press conference announcing Zehut's withdrawal from the elections. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Zehut party leader Moshe Feiglin hold a press conference announcing Zehut's withdrawal from the elections.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
The math of next week’s vote has changed significantly since April, but is it enough to prevent a three-peat election?
With a second election only five months after the last one, it’s tempting to think that not much has changed.
In some ways, things haven’t. The Likud and Blue and White are still neck and neck, but the right-wing bloc is still bigger in most polls – although, with Yisrael Beytenu in the uncertain camp, the margin is not as large as it was.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has launched another “gevalt” campaign, with gimmicks to dominate the discourse, interviews to Hebrew media the weekend before the election, and urging the public to vote Likud lest the Right lose and all hell break loose, as the Likud would describe it.
Blue and White isn’t managing to set much of a media agenda, but is still coasting, in part on being the “anti-Bibi,” meaning the perception that party cochairman Benny Gantz is the only candidate with a chance of bringing down Netanyahu.
But elections are, in large part, a numbers game, and there have been some significant changes in the math since April.
Mergers and acquisitions
One of the lessons small parties learned from the last election was that a merger is worth more than the sum of its parts – sort of.
Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett revived their partnership with Bayit Yehudi, forming the Yamina bloc with their New Right Party that just missed the 3.25% electoral threshold by less than 2,000 votes.
The Joint List got back together after running in April as Hadash-Ta’al and UAL-Balad; the latter cleared the threshold by a narrow margin of about 3,500 votes.
The Likud acquired some new-old partners: Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu Party now has four seats on the Netanyahu-led list. Zehut dropped out of the race, with party leader Moshe Feiglin supporting the Likud and some of the top candidates on his list backing Yamina. Kahlon and Feiglin are both former Likud MKs.
But clearly not everyone thinks merging into a few, clear ideological blocs is a good idea.
Former prime minister Ehud Barak founded his own party with the goal of convincing the parties to the Left of Blue and White to form one bloc. In the end, he was able to merge with Meretz and bring in ex-Labor MK Stav Shaffir to form the Democratic Union. However, they couldn’t convince Labor to join in as well, something that Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz openly lamented at this week’s Jerusalem Post-Maariv Election Conference.
In the end, Labor is running with the Gesher Party, which didn’t get into the Knesset. Labor leader Amir Peretz and Gesher leader Orly Levy-Abecassis share far-left economic politics.
This leaves the left-wing vote split, as it has been for the past decades, but for the first time it looks like Meretz will be bigger than Labor.
On the Right, there are concerns about the extremist Otzma Yehudit Party staying in the race. Yamina decided its mostly religious-Zionist bloc should not include Otzma, the latest political party of adherents of Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was banned from running for the Knesset in 1988 due to racist incitement. Since then, Yamina has devoted a significant effort to convincing the public not to vote for Otzma, because it won’t pass the electoral threshold anyway. Netanyahu and the Likud have taken up that message in the past week, as well. No Kahane-inspired party has gotten into the Knesset on its own since the rabbi himself was an MK, and only in 2009 did one lawmaker from the party manage to get into the Knesset, in a three-party merger.
But, in the meantime, Otzma has passed the threshold in six polls. New Right – now in Yamina – and Zehut – out of the race and endorsing Likud – serve as a reminder that doing decently in the polls is no guarantee of Election Day results, but Otzma has not been convinced to follow in their footsteps and quit their quixotic attempt to get into the Knesset on its own.
All about turnout
Across the political map, politicians have been saying this race will come down to turnout, which is expected to dip even lower than April’s 68.5%.
Several of the speakers at the Jerusalem Post-Maariv Election Conference lamented that an estimated 100,000 Israelis are taking advantage of no work on Election Day to leave the country and go on vacation. In the last election, one seat in the Knesset represented 32,860 votes; 1.7 Knesset seats’ more voters are expected to be abroad on Tuesday than for the April 9 election.
Low turnout is expected to help haredi parties Shas and UTJ more than the others, because their communities tend to come out in full force on Election Day, with several haredi towns turning out rates of about 85%. If turnout is low in general, but haredi support remains roughly the same, then they will have a proportionally larger share of the vote. The parties are pushing for as close to a 100% voting rate as possible by setting up phone banks to call and encourage people to vote.
Meanwhile, Arab towns had their lowest voter turnout ever in April, at 49.2%. The Joint List’s reunification is not because its various parts suddenly get along better. Rather, they hope that running together will get them more votes, like it did in 2015.
There’s no way to know which party will be hurt most by low turnout, because we don’t know who will or won’t vote.
A poll in Israel Hayom earlier this week showed that only 20% of respondents to the poll were not sure if they would vote at all. The party whose supporters were most certain about their vote was Otzma, at 90%, and the most uncertain was Yisrael Beytenu, at 55%. More people who chose Blue and White were certain about their vote (56%) than those who chose Likud (46%).
And that brings us to something that has remained steady over the past few elections: Preelection polls have not been very accurate. This is in part because they rarely reveal to the public how many people are uncertain about their vote, and the bar charts commonly seen on TV and newspapers do not reflect how solid the votes are.
Déjà vu all over again
A common refrain about this election is that it will end up just like April, and we will have a hat trick election – a third vote within a year. The good news is that the polls are not the same as they were in April. The bad news is that they look worse.
In April, the Right had a clear majority, even if the Likud and Blue and White had similar numbers in the polls. The image of the race being very close was not totally accurate. The same was true in 2015; the surprise and amazement on Election Day that Netanyahu pulled off another victory mostly showed people weren’t looking at the whole picture.
The problem was that after most of the Knesset recommended the president task Netanyahu with forming the government, there was a dispute within the Right. Yisrael Beytenu insisted on policies that haredim opposed, Shas and UTJ barely budging on their positions, and Netanyahu was not able to bridge the gap. Since then, Yisrael Beytenu has become a wild card; unlike in the beginning of the year, it refuses to commit to recommending a candidate.
The Right still has a majority in terms of ideology, and certainly in terms of the Israeli population, which has been on a mostly rightward trajectory for 20 years. But when Netanyahu looks at who will recommend him on Election Day, the number in most polls is less than a majority of the Knesset. Gantz is in the same boat; and in most polls, he has fewer certain recommendations than Netanyahu.
Now, Liberman is the kingmaker, who – again, if reality is like the polling averages – will be able to determine who gets the most recommendations, Netanyahu or Gantz.
Even if Netanyahu or Gantz manages to get most of the Knesset to recommend him, he might not be able to form a government in time – as we saw in May.
There’s no guarantee we won’t have a three-peat election. The polls make it look even more likely than it did in April.
All we’re left to rely on is the politicians saying they don’t want another election – including Liberman. Politicians are not known for keeping their promises, but they’ve had a pretty rough year, what with having to campaign twice. This time, they’re probably telling the truth. •