Thursday, March 19, 2015

Quick Post-#IsraElex Analysis

I suck at predicting American presidential politics. But I am pretty damn good when predicting Israeli politics. I've gotten every Israeli election right since I've undertaken this blog 10 years ago - which means I've been right four out of four. And today I will reveal my analytical secret as to why I always get it right.

If you were to believe all the wishful-thinking journalism generated over the 2015 elections in Israel, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was fighting for his political life. I never believed it, not for a second. Fifty days before the election, even working off of incorrect polling numbers, I boldly predicted that Netanyahu would be the next PM of Israel. This turns out to have been an easy call.

And boy-oh-boy, were the numbers ever faulty. Throughout the entire election cycle, poll after poll pointed to a slight advantage in electoral strength to the Zionist Union combination of Buji Herzog's Labor and Tzipi Livni. Even the initial election day exit polls, in which voters in certain key demographic polling stations were asked to accurately indicate their choice, were all uniformly wrong - meaning that tens of thousands of voters regarded it as their civic duty to purposefully fuck with the media. Lesson one - there is no way to accurately gauge the modern Israeli electorate.

But here we are - highest turnout in 16 years; smallest number of parties in the 20th Knesset since 1988; lowest performance of religious parties since 1992; and best performance by the right wing bloc since 2003.

But the bottom-line reality is this - there are essentially 4 blocs of voters. 10% of the electorate is locked in as the Arab (and naturally characterized as leftist) vote. A bit less than 20% of the electorate is locked in as the religious (and naturally characterized as a kind of rightist) vote. A little less than a third of the electorate is locked in to the secular center-left. And a little more than a third of the electorate is locked in as secular right-nationalist. That leaves about 10% of the electorate as a perennial swing vote, which can break to the center-left or to the right depending on each individual election.

Lesson two - when the national security environment is non-threatening or hopeful, this 10% breaks towards the center-left. When the national security environment is threatening and inhospitable, this 10% breaks right.

The closest comparable election to 2015 is 2003, the year Ariel Sharon's Likud trounced Ehud Barak's Labor. The 2003 election was cast against the backdrop of the violent Second Intifada. The right-nationalist bloc picked up 14 seats and the non-Arab center-left lost 7 seats. Sharon then created a fairly stable secular right-center coalition.

The 2015 election was carried out against the backdrop of the inconclusive war with HAMAS of 2014, and the growth of Da'esh to the left (Sinai) and to the right (Syria). The floating 10% responded accordingly: the right-national bloc picked up 15 seats, and the non-Arab center-left lost 6 seats. Given that the previous government was already led by Netanyahu, it was easy to predict his victory.

And that's what I did.

And by the way, fifty days ago I wrote "I think the polling numbers for Bennett's ha-Bayit ha-Yehudi party are too high." I got that right too. The polls said 15; BY ended up with 8.

Now, with the final Knesset numbers fixed, the question is what kind of government will emerge. Most of the Israeli punditry has talked itself into the formation of a so-called narrow right-nationalist-religious government. It is easy to see how such a government can be formed.

Likud 30
Kulanu 10
ha-Bayit ha-Yehudi 8
Shas 7
Yahadut ha-Torah 6

gets one to the threshold of 61, and if you add Yisrael Beytenu's 6, you have a government of 67 seats.

But it isn't that simple. Netanyahu must dole out the legally mandated 18 (likely to be expanded to 22) ministries of his coalition cabinet in a way that satisfies his lesser coalition partners and his own Likud party. Netanyahu has already promised the pandora's box of Treasury to Kulanu's Moshe Kahlon. Shas's Arye Deri wants to return to the Interior Ministry from which he was forced out 23 years ago. But the biggest prizes are Defense and the Foreign Ministry - the so-called inner cabinet. Yisrael Beytenu's weakened Avigdor Lieberman wants Defense. ha-Bayit ha-Yehudi's Naftali Bennett wants the Foreign Ministry or Defense. Netanyahu would prefer keeping his current Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, and needs to find something honorable for his many Likud politicians, including most prominently the number 2 man on the Likud list Gilad Erdan.

The badly beaten Zionist Union or the smaller Yesh Atid might yet become part of the solution to Netanyahu's intricate sudoku puzzle. But since the point of Netanyahu's decision to go to the polls was to be rid of ZU's Tzipi Livni and Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid, I can only imagine him taking back at most one of the two. Livni, one of the most toxic politicians in recent Israeli history, might break away or be forced out from the Zionist Union, clearing a path for Labor to join.

That is the best one can hope for - a national unity government with ZU but minus both Livni and Lapid. If so, then attacking Iran remains off the table. But if a narrow right-nationalist-religious government with an inner cabinet of adventurous hawks is the order of the day, I expect Israeli jets over Natanz before the fourth premiership of King Bibi falls.

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