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.