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Israeli election 2015: Netanyahu at risk?

March 14th, 2015, 6:03pm by Sam Wang

Note: updated to reflect final polls and some reader comments like this one.

Israel's Labor/Hatnuah ticket has emphasized economic issues. Credit: Jack Guez/APF/Getty Images/Vox

Labor's Isaac Herzog: Israel's next Prime Minister?

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):

Party Current 3/13
Likud 31 (+YB) 21
Jewish Home 12 11
Torah Judaism (UTJ) 7 6
Yisrael Beitenu (YB) see above 5
Yachad & Otzma 0 4
Kulanu 0 9
Yesh Atid 19 12
Total coalition 69 47
Shas 11 7
Meretz 6 5
Labor & Hatnuah 21 25
Hadash/UAL/Balad 11 13

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.

Some scenarios:

  1. 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.
  2. Likud, if they were to oust Netanyahu as party leader, might be able to hang on to those same two minor parties.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 [1] [2] 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.

Tags: Politics

18 Comments so far ↓

  • E L

    Bibi’s in. Chuck Norris just endorsed him. All he needs now is Ted Nugent to absolutely be a shoo-in.

  • Scott Supak (@ssupak)

    Bibi is 53% to return at Predict It. Worth a small short.

    • Sam Wang

      That’s interesting. I do wonder whether they see something I don’t…

    • Scott Supak (@ssupak)

      Actually, I think you’re seeing something they’re not. It’s a new site, so volume not like Intrade, and Conventional Wisdom is that only Bibi can form a coalition.

      In this case, CV is helping me get even money when I shouldn’t be…

  • KC Johnson

    Jewish Home is currently polling at 11-12 seats, not the 5 that you have indicated in the chart.

  • JPM (@JP_Meredith)

    It definitely seems more likely than not that Herzog will get first crack at forming a government (especially if he gets the recommendations of the Arab List). But it’s a different animal altogether for him to pull a coalition together, especially since the orthodox parties likely won’t sit with Lapid and ditto Kulanu with the Arab parties. So if Herzog can’t get to 61, you end up with Netanyahu getting a chance to pull back Kulanu and add Shas to get over 61 (among other possibilities).

    And if that can’t work, we get to option 3: the unity government with the ZU and Likud getting to 45 and pulling another 16 from the middle. In this case, we have an open question on how the betting markets even handle a situation where Netanyahu and Herzog/Livni agree to alternate the premiership.

    But we might be getting a good deal ahead of ourselves here: Yachad is only hanging on to its place in the Knesset, and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Lieberman or Meretz could fall out as well. And the polls have a history of missing big in Israel: Yesh Atid was polling at 11-12 seats in 2013 before getting 19; if it were to pull a similar jump this year, a left coalition would be possible. But without a boost of that nature, I think it’s really hard to call Herzog a favorite.

    • Sam Wang

      Thank you for this very helpful comment!

    • greensleeves

      My Israeli friends remarkably all agree that many Bibi supporters, highly Orthodox Jews, don’t answer polls at all. Thus Israeli polls are usually wrong. Bibi, they say, will squeak in due to religious support. Even if Herzog made it, he can’t actually form a government, so again, Bibi. US liberals dreams of shedding Bibi are just daydreams, my friends insist. He’s here to stay, and he’ll keep dissing Obama ‘cuz it works for him among the Orthodox coalition partners.

    • Sam Wang

      Could be, though it is also said that Arabs and army members are also nonresponders. One concrete observation is that in the 2013 election, Likud under-performed. So your friends are expressing an optimistic scenario for their side.

    • Scott Supak (@ssupak)

      And, Sam, with the Obama strategist over there working the voters who aren’t heard from as often, I’d say there’s a damn good chance those groups will over perform.

      As for this:

      “open question on how the betting markets even handle a situation where Netanyahu and Herzog/Livni agree to alternate the premiership.”

      At Predict It, the rules are worded thusly:

      “Benjamin Netanyahu shall be sworn in as prime minister of Israel following the 2015 general election.”

      So, if he’s not first in the rotation, he lost.

  • A New Jersey Farmer

    Could his speech to Congress, absent any other high-profile policy , really be a black swan event for his campaign? I would think not.

    • Sam Wang

      It seems more likely that it did not make a big difference either way. As far as I can tell, the big unknown is the post-election coalition-building.

  • mediaglyphic

    It would be interesting to model the post election coalition building with a simple game theoretical model.

    I am sure everyone saw this.

  • Amitabh Lath

    The post-election gyration seems like it will be more complex than protein folding given that party A is willing to ally with B but under no circumstances wants to be in the same room with C…

    Looks to be more interesting than our two party system (although I gather they hanker for the simplicity).

    Has someone made a computer model?
    Put in all the various parties/factions with the requisite matrix of coefficients of attraction/repulsion towards the other parties, apply the thresholds and weights from the election, and let it churn. Either we get a government of it goes into some metastable state from which it cannot recover.

  • greensleeves

    Thanks for your reply Sam. I guess I was unclear that my friends in Israel are all anti-Bibi Peace Now, Amos Oz types. :D But of course pro-Bibi folks wouldn’t be reading this site. :) The shift towards Bibi in the center apparently happened after the infamous text, but was going on all the same. It appears the religious turned for Bibi and many centrists turned towards him out of fear of their Arab-Israel neighbors. What a shame. :(

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