Saturday, January 19, 2013

Israeli Election Eve 2013 - No Change

It has been my practice on this blog to make predictions about American and Israeli elections. My track record on American presidential records has been simply awful. I was embarrassingly wrong in 2008 and wrong again in 2012. I should just stop trying.
But...when it comes to Israeli elections, I do much better. I got the 2006 elections pretty much right. The 2009 election was much harder to call, insofar as it ended with a dead tie favoring the right, but I didn't too badly.
Which brings us to 2013.
The last set of scientific polling has been published. The polls all point to an outcome that will require the President of Israel, Shimon Peres, to conduct his mandated consultations with party leaders and then designate Binyamin Netanyahu with the task of assembling a coalition government under his leadership.
What will Netanyahu then do?
This is the same question that emerged in February and March of 2009, after similar political consultations led Peres to reluctantly request Netanyahu to form a government. Normally, the President is mandated to turn to the winning parliamentary bloc with the task of forming a government. But back in 2009, even though Netanyahu's Likud party came in a close second in the race for Knesset seats, Peres learned that a coalition of smaller religious/nationalist and conventionally designated "right-wing" parties were prepared to join Likud, and not the leading bloc of Kadima. For Peres it must have been a bitter pill to swallow. It was also a disappointing outcome for the incoming Obama administration, which clearly preferred a Kadima-led government.
Netanyahu indeed assembled a comfortable coalition government in 2009. Starting with his 27 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, he reached an agreement with Avigdor Lieberman's Russian immigrant Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel is Our Home") faction of 15 seats (=42), and then added to his total Labor's 13 seats and Shas's 11, as well as the 3 seats of the former National Religious Party, now renamed The Jewish Home (ha-Bayit ha-Yehudi) (=69). A day after he presented the government to the nation, the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism added its 5 seats to the coalition, creating an unassailable majority of 74 seats.
Netanyahu's government survived for nearly its full 4-year term. A number of changes whittled away slightly at the coalition's majority. Many Laborites were unhappy with Ehud Barak's decision to join the Netanyahu government, forcing Barak out and withdrawing their support. Barak formed a rump party and took 3 Laborites with him. The remaining wreck of Labor (now a mere 8 seats) went into opposition.
In the early summer of 2012 Netanyahu attempted a short-lived "national unity government" with Kadima (after Kadima had ejected its leader in the 2009 campaign, Tzipi Livni, for her internal rival, Shaul Mofaz). That experiment, which created a super-majority of 96 seats and prompted Time magazine to call Netanyahu "King Bibi," lasted for all of 70 days. 
In the fall of 2012 Netanyahu calculated that new elections would strengthen his already strong hand. He announced a call for elections by dissolving the parliament, and immediately merged his Likud with Lieberman's party, beginning therefore with an unassailable bloc of 42 seats.
Two "new" parties have emerged this election cycle: one was formed by a popular former news reader and talkshow host, Yair Lapid, with the name Yesh Atid ("There is a Future"). A second party was cobbled together by Livni, with the simple and bombastic name ha-Tenu`ah ("The Movement"). The Jewish Home went through a rebranding, and for all intents and purposes can be regarded as a "new" political force. And finally, Barak's Independence party simply disappeared from the scene, with Barak "retiring" yet again from politics.
Internally, each of the parties held primaries to determine the order of their lists. Israeli elections are national, not regional, enterprises - a voter votes for a party, and then the vote is divided into 120. Every seat won is designated to a list - and if your party wins 17 seats, and you appear as number 18 - you're shit out of luck. So the higher you appear on a party's list, the more likely you will become a MK (member of Knesset). The newsworthy outcome of the party primary voting took place in Likud - a sizable number of current ministers and conventionally-described Likud "moderates" were ousted from their high positions, to be replaced by right-wing settler representatives. Likud turned harder to the right.
So that sets the stage for Tuesday's voting: a more right-wing Likud now merged with Yisrael Beiteinu, campaigning with the slogan: "A strong Prime Minister - a strong Israel"; a new Labor under the leadership of (yet another) former media star, Shelly Yachimovich; a collapsed and no longer relevant Kadima under loser Mofaz; a rebranded Jewish Home under the leadership of American immigrant and hi-tech tycoon Naftali Bennett; a new party led by the cipher Lapid; and a new party under perennial loser Livni.
It is simply too much to follow, all these comings and goings. So most pollsters and pundits neatly divide the squabbling parties into 3 blocs: the right-religious; the center-left; and the Arab parties (who never play a part in coalition formation). Looked at that way, the current situation of the outgoing Knesset is thus:

Right-Religious coalition - 67
Center-Left "blocking" opposition - 42
Arab parties - 11

First, notice the low numbers for Arab parties. Though Arabs constitute 20% of the population of Israel, they hold only 10% of Knesset seats (though there are a handful of Israeli Arab candidates scattered amongst the Jewish Zionist parties). This is because of the question of voter turnout. Essentially, Arab voters have given up voting in Israeli elections. But this question of turnout relates to a bigger trend: religious and nationalist Jews turn out at a much higher rate than either the secular Jewish Israeli or the Israeli Arab. In 2009, overall turnout was 65% (in fact slightly up from 2006) - certainly impressive when compared to other democracies. But there persists a wide gulf between the turnout of self-defined religious voters (over 85%) and secular voters (slightly more than 50%). Mobilized small-sector interest groups rule the roost in contemporary Israeli democracy. Put another way - if Israeli secularists were as interested in participating in democracy as the Orthodox, then the religious and right-wing camps would be proportionally smaller factions in parliament.There has been a concerted effort to stress the issue of voter turnout, but it is likely the results will vary little from historic patterns.
Noisy foreign protagonists and antagonists of Israel devote a great deal of time to her conflicts, and can get quit passionate in their advocacy. On the other hand, a sizable number of Israelis couldn't give a shit one way or the other.
That brings us to the polls. First, going in to the weekend the polls uniformly report that 15% of likely voters are undecided. This is not as newsworthy a number as it might first appear. Many undecided voters know what they believe - for them the question is simply which party in the Israeli political smorgasbord will best enable their vote.
Even though the larger outcome - an easy Netanyahu victory leading to a 3rd government under his leadership - is all but certain, there are still a few small surprises to be had.
Let's take a look at the numbers of the last round of polls (current size in parentheses):

Likud Beiteinu (merged parties - 42) - 32-34
Labor (8) - 16-17
Yesh Atid (0) - 12-13
Shas (11) - 10-12
Kadima (28) - 0-2
Jewish Home (7) - 12-14
Movement (0) - 7-9
Meretz (3) - 6
Arab Parties (11) - 11-12

So what have been the main story lines? First, it has been a dull and uneventful campaign - hardly an energizing civic exercise. Given all the fateful decisions facing a new government - Iran, continued tension with the US administration, the seething Palestinian powderkeg - this election campaign has generated minimal interest amongst Israeli voters. Unlike elections past, there hasn't been a single nationally televised candidates' debate. Imagine that - no debates.
Second, the merger of Netanyahu and Lieberman (sometimes dubbed "Biberman") has been a tactical failure - the constituent parts equal more than the combined whole by a wide margin.
Third, the surprise new party (and there always seems to be at least one each election cycle) has got to be Lapid's. Livni's new party and its single-digit results has been described as a bitter disappointment for her. What we are likely seeing is the scattering of Kadima voters (who might be described as right-centrists) for smaller factions. And the rebranding of the old NRP under Bennett is notable (Likud Beiteinu defections?).
Finally - it is worth noting the recovery of Labor under Yachimovich to at least semi-respectable size, and the apparent doubling of the leftist bastion Meretz party.
Now let's look at the final polling numbers by breaking them down into the 3 aforementioned big blocs:

Right-Religious coalition - approx. 66
Center-Left "blocking" opposition - approx. 42
Arab parties - 11-12

And look! - bottom line...nothing changes. Only if there is a serious divergence - a swing from bloc to bloc of 7 or 8 seats - does there emerge a serious opportunity for Peres to entertain the option of turning to anyone other than Netanyahu to form the next government. Highly unlikely.
Netanyahu always has the option of reaching out to some of the Center-Left opposition in order to abandon the religious-Orthodox (a persistent pipe dream of secularists - and hinted at for a time in his short-lived national unity government of 2012), but his likely route to a stable coalition is to turn to his "natural" partners. Depending on the final numbers, that is what he will do.
Will there be any surprises? In other words, polls have a history of getting something wrong. What will be the electoral surprise of 2013? I think that the numbers for Bennett are too high - Israelis are enamored with his personal story, but there are many unpalatable forces underlying his rebranded party, and I suspect he won't do as well as the polling suggests. Expect a better outcome for Likud Beiteinu than 32, and a poorer showing for The Jewish Home than 13.
Finally, there is an interesting rule in Israeli parliamentary elections - a party must garner a minimum 2% of the raw vote in order to gain one seat in the Knesset. Are there any current parties who will fall below the threshold? Yes, possibly Mofaz and Kadima - the party created by Ariel Sharon in 2005 as a vehicle for implementing his short-lived and new-found conversion. Good riddance to pointless Kadima.
Will any tiny party break through the threshold in 2013? I always hold out hope for Green Leaves (`Alei Yaroq) - the decriminalization of marijuana party, now trying to recast itself as an economic, anti-corruption party. Much more likely is Strength to Israel (`Otzmah la-Yisrael), a rightist splinter group.
Bottom line - to repeat - nothing changes. One of the most pointless and insubstantial Israeli elections in history. Then comes the month-long rug-trading to form a coalition. That's where the story - if any - will emerge.

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