Note: updated to reflect final polls and some reader comments like this one.
Israeli elections are Tuesday, March 17th – St. Patrick’s Day! Israeli politics is rococo in its complexity, but let’s take a look at the data. Bottom line, there is a substantial chance of Netanyahu being ousted as Prime Minister. In the context of Israeli politics, his US speech looks like a Hail Mary pass.
First, the basics. The Knesset is the only legislative chamber of Israel, and has 120 seats. It’s a parliamentary system, in which 61 votes is enough to elect the Prime Minister, currently Netanyahu. Assignment of seats is fairly simple: seats are assigned in proportion to the national popular vote, a reformer’s dream. Any party that garners 3.25% of the popular vote gets seats.
Now things get more complicated. At the moment, 12 political parties hold Knesset seats, and Likud (Netanyahu’s party) leads the ruling coalition. In Tuesday’s election, that could go as high as 15 parties.
As it turns out, Netanyahu’s coalition is unlikely to muster 61 seats. This wasn’t true even last month. There are a few major reasons, including the following:
- Likud has slipped a few seats. They were steady for months, but around March 10th they took a dive, shortly after Netanyahu spoke to the U.S. Congress at the invitation of the Republicans.
- All coalition parties have slipped over the last year, a sign of anti-incumbent sentiment.
- Likud’s once-closest allies, Yisrael Beitenu, has taken a major dive over the last year because of a corruption scandal.
Based on recent Israeli polling data, here are the final poll medians (n=7):
|Torah Judaism (UTJ)||7||6|
|Yisrael Beitenu (YB)||see above||5|
|Yachad & Otzma||0||4|
|Labor & Hatnuah||21||25|
The Likud ruling coalition is indicated in red; they are listed in approximate descending order of their likelihood of staying in. Click their names for recent stories indicating hints of whether they would stay with Likud. Three other parties are listed in blue. Arab parties are in green. Nobody has ever included them in a ruling coalition.
In order to maintain control, Netanyahu would have to get every single party in his current coalition to stay. However, that appears to be a hard lift at the moment. Yesh Atid might be out. Kulanu is a new party which split from Likud, mainly because of conflict with Netanyahu. It seems unlikely that they would caucus with Likud with Netanyahu at the helm.
- If Labor/Hatnuah ends up with the most seats, they will probably be asked by the President to take a first shot at forming a coalition. Depending on the exact number of seats, they would have to win over Yesh Atid and Kulanu at a minimum. That would make Tzipi Livni (Hatnuah) and Isaac Herzog (Labor) the leaders of the next government.
- Likud, if they were to oust Netanyahu as party leader, might be able to hang on to those same two minor parties.
- I wonder if a few Arab-party votes could be peeled off. From what I hear, even that would probably cause rioting in the streets. Then again, Arab parties could vote for an anti-Likud coalition but not hold any posts in the government.
- Two parties are polling just above the 3.25% minimum threshold for representation: Yachad+Otzma, which is right-wing, and Meretz, which is left-wing. If either ends up with less than 3.25%, their end of the political spectrum would lose a net 2-5 seats. That could be decisive for who gets to form a ruling coalition.
- If all else fails, there’s always a national unity government led by both sides.
It is hard to assign probabilities of all the scenarios. Also, voter sentiment can change, and Israeli law forbids publishing new polls within five days of the election. Either because of last-minute changing opinion or polling error, in 2013 the average difference between polls and final outcomes was 1.5 seats: Likud+Yisrael Beitenu got 3 seats less than expected, and Yesh Atid, a “Third Way”-ish party, did 7 seats better than expected. Ballpark, it seems that the odds of Netanyahu staying in power are about 3-1 against. [Note: his routes to survival improve if one scores a national unity government with Likud-Labor-Hatnuah as "surviving."] I’ll revisit this estimate in coming days.
For more thoughts on coalition-building from close watchers of Israeli politics, see these two pieces   in The Forward by J.J. Goldberg, this Haaretz analysis, and this BBC explainer. Post your own favorite analyses in comments!
*Commeneters have delved into the intricacies of Israeli politics. For more on how Netanyahu might hang on, read this piece in Haaretz.