The 2019 elections: The numbers tell the story

According to the latest polls, Israel’s political topography won’t change much after the April 2019 elections.

Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R)

Israel’s Byzantine politics, with parties splitting, uniting, dissolving, reforming and dealing, can be confusing. Here is my effort to clear away the fog, with hard numbers.
• There are close to 9 million people in Israel. About two-thirds of them are old enough to vote (18 or over), or 6 million. About 70% of those eligible will actually vote, or 4.2 million, compared with about 56% of voters in the 2016 US Presidential Election and an average of 95% turnout in Australia and Belgium, where voting is compulsory.
• About 10% of Israel’s population is aged 18-24; these 892,000 young people largely avoid television and get their information from social media. The percentage of them who vote is lower than the average. To influence them, Likud invests heavily in so-called “new media.” Globally, and in Israel, older people vote far more than younger ones.
• In Knesset elections, parties must get at least 3.25% of the total votes cast, or about 140,000 votes, to gain Knesset representation. In the last national election, in 2015, 10 political parties passed this minimum threshold and elected MKs. Another 15 parties ran in the election but fell below the threshold. Of these, by far the largest was Eli Yishai’s Yachad party (Yishai formerly headed Shas), which garnered 125,158 votes. Some of the strangest parties were the Pirate Party of Israel, the Flower Party, and Living with Dignity; eight parties got fewer than 1,000 votes each. The total votes cast for these 15 small parties was 233,371, or 5% of the total votes cast. There were also 43,854 blank or invalid votes. It is likely that again in 2019 there will be a dozen or more small parties running for office.
• In the 2015 election, 46% of the total votes cast went to the five right-wing parties (Likud, Jewish Home, Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu, United Torah Judaism), and 49% went to the center-left parties (Zionist Union, Joint List (Arab), Yesh Atid, Kulanu and Meretz). Some polls indicate a shift to the right among voters since 2015. But the split between the right and center-left remains roughly 50/50.
• In theory, the center-left parties, if they cooperated, could possibly form a “blocking coalition” – a political grouping opposed to a Likud-led government. But this would involve an unprecedented degree of cooperation among parties like Meretz (left) and the Joint List (Arab), and seems highly unlikely.
• A study by the leading pollster Prof. Camille Fuchs and Shmuel Rozner, sponsored by the Jewish People Policy Institute, showed that 55% of Israeli Jews espouse a “Jewish-Israeli” identity – mixing a “strong affinity for Jewish traditions and a national sentiment, in a way that makes the two almost indistinguishable.” According to the study, this group shares some core beliefs about politics. And “it is a group all parties need to win over if they want to control the government. Hence… a successful political party today has to offer a Jewishly flavored Israeli patriotism.”
Is the center-left anti-religious? Perhaps this is what the embattled Labor leader Avi Gabbay feared when he said, “The Jewish left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish.”
• According to the latest polls, Israel’s political topography won’t change much after the April 2019 elections. Labor will drop 8-11 seats, mostly picked up by the new party Hosen Yisrael (Israel Resilence) founded by former chief of staff Benny Gantz. The current coalition government has 61 MKs. After the election, according to current polls, those parties in the current coalition will have between 52 and 61 MKs. This likely points to a long tough process to form a coalition government, and possibly to a weak one once it is formed, with small parties forming a balance of power and thus enjoying massive political leverage.
The 50-50 split between right and center-left will generate a lot of instability and political horse-trading for years to come. It might be a good time to redesign Israel’s electoral system, in a way that stabilizes it.
• Both Israel and the US suffer from toxic “base” politics. According to Channel 10 pundit Raviv Drucker, even if the center-left parties got 60 Knesset seats, and the Likud only 30, it is the Likud leader who will form the next government, because the center-left never can coalesce around one agreed candidate for prime minister – and the candidate for prime minister can woo small center-left parties with ministerial posts and influence.
This means that in this upcoming election campaign, Prime Minister Netanyahu will play to his “base,” his loyal supporters, and demonize the center-left, because it is the base, those 30 seats, which pave his way to another term. Does this sound familiar? Does it sound like the US, where President Trump almost exclusively panders to his small minority base and regularly shreds all the others?
• There is a solution to virulent base politics. Change the electoral system. In three national elections, each Israeli put two slips into the ballet box – one for a Knesset party and one directly for a prime minister. As a result, Netanyahu was elected in 1996, Ehud Barak in 1999 and then Ariel Sharon in 2001. The system proved unstable and disastrous, and was abandoned.
But there is a better way – rank-order voting. In Ireland, voters rank presidential candidates – 1, 2, 3 and so on. To be chosen, a candidate has to get half the total first-place votes plus one. If no one makes it in round one, the candidate with the least votes is dropped, his or her votes are redistributed and again the candidate with the most first-place votes is calculated. This continues, until one candidate gets half the first-place votes plus one. The beauty of the system is that center-left candidates have no interest in attacking one another but, instead, in collaborating. The center-left has a strong interest in all of its candidates ranking as high as possible. The toxicity of political campaigns is thus removed.
Is there any chance this change could happen in Israel? Not in the slightest. The current system keeps Likud in power and the party will never abandon it.