Monday, March 16, 2015

Last Israel Pre-Election Blog 2015 and Predictions

Isaac Herzog and Tsipi Livni
Netanyahu and Bennett
 We are nearing the finish line.  Or perhaps, one could say, we are nearing the starting line, given the Israeli political system.  In some ways the real drama begins when the coalition building starts after the votes are all counted.  But tomorrow is a big day.  Israelis across the country will cast their ballots and it will then probably take quite a period of time to sort out and spin the results.  Students are thrilled - they have a day off school since in Israel, an election day is almost a national holiday.

Under Israeli law, the last pre-election polls could only be published Friday March 13, 2015.  But over the past few days, there has been a flurry of activity from all sides, jockeying for last minute position.  Here are a few last-minute highlights of some of the really interesting things that are going on (in my view anyways).

1.  Netanyahu is in Desperation Mode

Prime Minister Netanyahu is pulling out all the stops in a bid to retain his position.  He attended a large rally on Saturday night in Tel-Aviv with Bayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett.  He has publicly appealed to his constituency by pledging that Bennett will be a key part of his government.  He has attacked Herzog and Livni as "weak" and claimed that they will divide Jerusalem and create "Hamastan" in Jerusalem.  In short, he has made every effort to appeal to his right wing base, seemingly ceding much of the centrist vote on issues involving the Palestinians.  He has renounced any previous speeches in which he indicated that he would be willing to agree to a Palestinian State and he has wooed the right wing and the Israeli religious voters feverishly.  At the same time, he has urged Moshe Kahlon (leader of the Kulanu party) to support him and he has pledged to provide economic assistance to the middle class despite the perception that he has a failed record in this regard.  While Netanyahu's calculation is that the Likud voters will be frightened into bolstering his party at the last minute, there is some danger that this will backfire.  There is a palpable sense of desperation.  The momentum has been moving in the other direction and it is certainly unclear that these desperate speeches and statements will stem the tide.

2.  The Zionist Camp is Feeling Confident

Indications are that the Zionist Camp will win a plurality of seats.  However, it still may not be enough to enable the party to build a viable coalition and form a government.  Nevertheless, the party is also making several last minute appeals, changes and pleas in an effort to shore up its support.  Leader Isaac Herzog visited the Kotel and pledged his support for Jerusalem.  He has attacked Lapid's Yesh Atid Party and urged centrist voters to support his party.  Earlier today, he and co-leader Tsipi Livni announced that they would not go through with their plans to have a rotating Prime Minister's office and that Herzog would be the sole Prime Minister if the party wins.  This was seemingly intended to enable the party more flexibility in coalition negotiations - perhaps even opening the door to a rotation with Likud (which may or may not involve Netanyahu).

3.  Meretz is also Desperate

As I have written previously, the Meretz party, the party of left wing social justice, is flirting with elimination from the Knesset.  Under new Israeli electoral law, a party must win 4 seats to be able to sit in the Knesset.  That total has been increased to minimize the number of parties and limit the ability of extremist parties to win Knesset seats.  Meretz is polling at 4 or 5 seats.  Meretz has stepped up its campaigning with ads everywhere.  It is appealing to voters by claiming that the Meretz party is needed for there to be any chance for Herzog to form a government.  In fact, it has used a stylized "Merzog" graphic to bolster the connection, mixing its party name with Herzog.  But many Meretz voters are moving to the Zionist Camp, hoping that this will finally be an opportunity for the left/centre to form a government.  It could be a very close call for Meretz.

4.  Shas and Yachad

As I discussed previously, the ultra-religious Shas party splintered over the course of this most recent Knesset sitting.  Eli Yishai left the party and formed the Yachad party which is now polling at 4 or 5 seats.  Shas is calling on its voters to "come home" to the legacy of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, its former spiritual leader.  Yishai is flailing around in an effort to reunite with Shas or find some other way to make it into the Knesset.  It would be a huge boost for the Israeli centre if Yishai were to fall short since his 4 seats would be redistributed among the other parties, proportionately.  

5.  Centrist Struggle:  Lapid or Kahlon?

In the last Knesset, Yair Lapid's party Yesh Atid had 19 seats.  The party is now polling at 12.  A new party, Kulanu, led by former Likud member Moshe Kahlon is polling at 8.  A simplistic look at these numbers would suggest that these parties are fighting over the same group of voters - approximately 15-18% of the Israeli public who view themselves as true centrists.  Lapid has edged slightly to the left, indicating that it is now highly unlikely that he would join a Netanyahu-led government (again).  Kahlon has been wooed by Likud but has refused to commit to supporting Netanyahu. These two parties could be the real power brokers and could also wind up with surprising numbers.  It is likely that the two parties combined will wind up in the range of 18-25 seats, which is certainly a force to be reckoned with.


It is extremely difficult to predict Israeli election results. Many Israelis continue to declare themselves to be "undecided" to pollsters - whether or not that is really true.  Others are still deciding between one or two or even three parties.  Some may not decide until they are in the polling booth.  But what is a political column like this worth without making an effort?  So here goes, based on recent polls, trends, discussions with others, gut instincts and perhaps, a complete lack of qualifications as an election predictor - here is what I am going with:

Zionist Camp:  27
Likud:  21
Yesh Atid:  16
United Arab Parties: 13
Bayit Yehudi 13
Shas 8
Kahlon 7
Degel HaTorah 6
Yisrael Beitenu 5
Meretz 4
Yachad OUT

If this were to occur, Herzog would have 30 days to try and form a government.  He would be able to count on the support of Yesh Atid, Meretz and maybe Kahlon.  That could get the party to 54.  They would still need seats from the religious parties and/or Lieberman to be able to form a government.  Alternatively, they would try to form a unity government agreement with Likud.  I am having a hard time, based on these numbers, seeing how the Zionist Camp could actually form a government.  I am almost forced to predict that we will see another election within a two year period.

On the other hand, if Netanyahu continued to fight over the initial 30 day period and Herzog could not form a government, Netanyahu would get a chance to try.  He could count on Bayit Yehudi, Shas and Degel HaTorah.  That would get him to 48 with these numbers.  Add 5 for Lieberman.  That is 53.  He would still need Kahlon and Yesh Atid or at least Yesh Atid.  At this point, it is highly unlikely that Yesh Atid will bolster a right-wing religious government, since that would involve unraveling all of the changes that Lapid has pushed for.

This all looks like quite a recipe for a political logjam.

Netanyahu is not about to go quietly.  However, looking at all of these results and possibilities, the most likely of the unlikely scenarios is starting to look like a joint Zionist Camp-Likud government, supported by Lapid, Kahlon and Meretz.  It would be quite a shock but there are Israeli precedents.

The alternative would be a Herzog-led government which includes two of the three - Shas, Degel HaTorah, and Lieberman - as well as Kahlon and Lapid.  I'm not seeing it....

So that is the best I can do.  Stay tuned.  We should have a good sense by Wednesday morning as to how these numbers stack up with the official results.


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