Archive for January, 2013

An Israeli government without Netanyahu is still possible

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

A month ago, I published on my blog a short article entitled “Is this Netanyahu’s final month in office?

It contained several predictions about the Israeli elections — which is always a colossal mistake, as how can one possibly make accurate predictions about such a thing?

So here is what I said:

“The right wing alliance headed up by Netanyahu has lost much of its strength. “

I didn’t make a prediction about how much, but cited polls showing them dropping from 45 seats to 36. In fact, it was even worse for them.

“Kadima will disappear. “

Very close. Kadima just squeaked past the minimum of 2% to get two Knesset seats — instead of the 19 seats polls showed it winning a year ago, or the 28 seats they won in 2009.

“Kadima’s voters have defected to two new parties – Yesh Atid and Hatnuah.”

Got that one right. Of the 28 seats won by Kadima in 2009, they’ve divided up with 19 going to Yesh Atid, 6 to Hatnuah, and 2 to Kadima. It seems as if nearly every Kadima voter from 2009 decided to try one of the three centrist parties this time.

“The major left wing parties — Labour and Meretz — have stalled. “

I pointed out that the combined Labour-Meretz vote had stalled, as polls a year ago showed them winning 22 seats and that had hardly changed — it was 23 when I wrote the article. The actual result was 21 seats for the two parties.

The last of my observations was that “Shas is not necessarily a coalition partner only for the right.” I stand by that today.

Which leads to the coalition I suggested a month ago:

“Labour and Meretz form the government with 23 seats, in coalition with the two new centrist parties which get 20 seats. They are supported by 11 seats in the Arab parties and invite Shas into the government with its 11 seats.”

That would have been 65 seats. The actual vote totals today are better.  We have 21 for Labour and Meretz, 27 for the three centrist parties, and 12 (more than I predicted) for the DFPE, Balad and the UAL (the so-called “Arab parties”).   That’s 60 seats, half of the Knesset.  Toss in Shas with its 11 seats (exactly as predicted). That would be a relatively stable coalition of 71, and would leave the Netanyahu-led opposition with just 49 seats.

It would not be the first time Shas sat in government with Labour — this was the case when Yitzhak Rabin won his spectacular victory in 1992 and again in 1999 when Ehud Barak defeated Netanyahu for the first time.  In fact, when Labour has governed the country, it has always done so in coalition with religious parties.

The key, of course, is Shas. If the central issue facing the nation is religious conversion, or civil marriage, or drafting religious students into the army, then Shas shouldn’t be part of the government. But if the main issues — the life or death issues — are the fight for a renewal of the peace process with the Palestinians and for greater social justice inside Israel, then Shas is a potential partner.

The last words of my article a month ago remain true today:

“Yes, the most likely scenario is that Netanyahu pulls together a coalition, but it’s not inevitable.”

Who’s going to win the Israeli elections? Actually, no one knows

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

The Israeli elections are just six days away and the consensus in Israel and abroad is that Benjamin Netanyahu will once again be elected prime minister, heading up a coalition of right-wing and ultra-orthodox political parties.  And the polls do seem to confirm this.  The latest poll on the popular Israeli website Walla shows the right-wing parties winning 49 seats out of 120, and together with a projected 18 seats for the ultra-Orthodox parties, they can scrape together a majority.

But as Walla goes on to say in their analysis, a week is a long time in politics.

Actually, they don’t say that — but what they do is look at the results of polls taken a week before the last elections.

And the comparison is, in my view, really interesting.  It even offers a ray of hope.

Just before the 2009 elections, polls showed the following:

  • Kadima winning 23 seats – but in reality, it won 28, making it the largest party.
  • Labour was expected to win 17 seats, but won only 13 – a historic defeat, and Ehud Barak’s last as leader of the party.
  • Meretz, which polls showed getting 6 seats, won a very disappointing 3.
  • The Arab party Balad was projected to win no seats at all, but won 3.

These are massive gaps between what polls project and actual results, unlike, for example, the extraordinarily accurate polling we saw in the USA in the run up to the 2012 election (and analyzed brilliantly in the FiveThirtyEight blog by Nate Silver on the New York Times website.

These are errors of tens of thousands of votes.  Each Knesset seat won in 2009 represented over 28,000 votes.  So Meretz had something like 85,000 fewer voters than polls were showing.  And Kadima had 140,000 more voters than was projected by polls.  Considering that only 3.4 million people vote in an Israeli election, those are enormous numbers.

I won’t go into the reasons why polls in Israel are so inaccurate, but with potential swings of five seats to or from the large parties, alternative scenarios begin to emerge.

Leaving out the question of whether Netanyahu really can gather up all the right-wing and religious parties (and Shas is absolutely not in his pocket, for example), what would it take to bring the center-left to power?

A shift in the polls of 7 Knesset seats.  That’s all.

If the left and center parties could pick up 7 more seats, they’d be able to form a government.  And by that I mean a government without relying on any of the religious parties, all of which have been happy to join up with Labour-led governments in the recent past.

In 2009, polls showed just two parties from the center and left — Kadima and Balad — picking up 8 more seats than predicted.

And of course the polls don’t really take voter turnout into account either.

Here’s what we know about voter turnout in recent Israeli elections:

  • 2009 – 64.72% Right wing government comes to power with the second lowest voter turnout ever.
  • 2006 – 63.55% Lowest voter turnout in history – Kadima and Labour come to power, Likud is crushed, winning less than 9% of the vote.
  • 2003 – 67.81% Ariel Sharon, then heading up Likud, wins the election.
  • 1999 – 78.7% Labour’s Ehud Barak elected prime minister, forms a government with a wide range of parties, including religious ones –  partnering with Shas, Meretz, Yisrael BaAliyah, the Centre Party, the National Religious Party and United Torah Judaism.

Those results should also serve as a reminder of the fact that in the last four national elections, Labour came to power twice (in coalition), the Likud won once when Sharon was leading it in the direction of withdrawal from Gaza and a two-state solution, and only once (in 2009) did Likud win under Netanyahu’s leadership, and even then it wasn’t the largest party (Kadima was).

To sum up:

  • Israeli elections are complicated.
  • Polls are no indication of what will happen on election day.
  • Netanyahu is eminently beatable.
  • Israelis tend to vote for governments that they see as moderate, not extremists.
  • Voter turnout is what matters – the left does much better when it approaches 80%, as it did in 1999, 1996 and 1992.

Don’t give up on the Israeli center-left.  The results next week may well surprise.