Another Israeli election is coming.
Let me be absolutely clear – most of what you will read is written from within one of two political world visions
- Bibi is the demon
- Bibi is the king
The recent piece in the NYT by Thomas Friedman is a good example. Friedman literally drools over the recent coalition whilst spitting venom at Netanyahu.
None of this is political analysis. It is pure personal bias in a very thin disguise.
Like his politics or not – Bibi Netanyahu is a target of a major demonisation campaign. This means that much of what is written in the media, and much of what you will hear from western commentators, comes from a camp that desperately wants to reduce the chance of a Bibi victory. When they write, it is often their hope driving the analysis.
When they do this, they mislead – and with over a dozen political parties, several political blocs and a whole bundle of personal vendettas, the Israeli election is confusing enough without the political commentators skewing it all in with their own bias.
Israel election – the basics
Israel has a multi-party system built on proportional representation. Each party presents a list of candidates to the electorate. Voters cast votes for the party of their choice. It means (unfortunately) individual MKs never directly face the electorate. The 120 seats are then split up according to the votes that the dozen plus parties received. The end result is *always* a coalition.
The election blocs
Voters split into five key camps
- The Arab bloc
- The ‘progressive’ left.
- The centre
- The right
- The religious
The vast majority of voters sit inside one of these blocs and remain very difficult to shift. Floating voters can be found only around the centre. A new face – a fresh idea – sometimes acts as a magnet for them.
It is not unusual for a ‘new party’ to come along to blur lines – either by trying to pull voters from the right or left. These ‘paradigm busters’ can be temporarily successful. Ariel Sharon’s Kadima delivered a knock out in 2005. Yair Lapid’s ‘Yesh Atid’ gave him the keys to the Prime Minister’s office.
But this is the only game in town and most of it is illusion. Lapid’s ‘Yesh Atid’ does not have its own political turf to operate on. There is nothing really to distinguish it from the traditional Israeli Labour Party – other than personalities. Sharon still wanted to be Likud, just without the Likud’s infighting.
The first thing to understand about Israeli politics is that for the most part, political parties play musical chairs with the voters that sit around them in the political spectrum. For example, a new party may suddenly run in the centre left – and pollsters may suggest it will win ’10 seats’, but in reality those 10 seats have only been captured from competitors on the centre left. The political map itself remains unchanged.
Few Israeli political manoeuvres are actually ‘bloc-breaking’ (Sharon’s creation of Kadima in 2005 is probably the most recent one worthy of mention, and whilst successful the effect did not last long. Kadima crumbled, and the blocs reverted to type).
So if you hear that a Party you like is doing really well, don’t get too excited. It will almost certainly mean that they have stolen votes from their own political allies. In a system that needs a coalition to form a government it all adds up to zero.
To show you how much is just illusionary noise – here is a table of the blocs showing the results in the 2013 – 2019 elections:
|Left / Centre||48||50||49|
Within these stable numbers are hidden numerous ‘fresh faces’ that came and went (such as Hatnua, Kulanu and Zionist Union. Going back further we can also point to ‘Shinui‘, ‘Centre Party‘ and the ‘Third Way’ – all just playing musical chairs with the same voters.
The small differences between these results are often down to electoral thresholds. For example, the dip in 2015 for the religious block arose because one politician (Eli Yashai) formed a splinter party that just failed to pass the threshold (now 3.25% of the vote). A few wasted votes made a noticable impact and this issue of thresholds could be extremely important in the upcoming election.
The electoral grab for right of centre votes
Given those parties (and individuals) that will work alongside each other and those that will not, there is only one coherent ideological bloc in Israeli politics – the Likud, nationalist, and religious bloc. For this simple reason, they have dominated Israeli politics for a generation.
This basic mathematical fact is deplored (and mostly denied) – by those who sit further left in the spectrum.
The traditional left also has a branding issue. Oslo was their disaster. With no peace partner on the horizon and nothing to resurrect the camp, the parties seen as responsible (Labour and Meretz) have imploded.
This creates fertile ground for a ‘fresh vision’ to surface, which is where those like Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid came in.
But playing musical chairs with left or centrist voters won’t win elections. For this reason, we have seen the creation of parties such as ‘Blue and White’. Strong on security, led by a military man – it is an attempt to take softer Likud voters away from the right-wing bloc. Without being able to successfully do this – there is no viable alternative to a right of centre coalition. The numbers just will not add up.
The anti-Bibi bloc
What changed and has caused the gridlock in Israeli politics was the anti-Bibi coalition. A bloc that had only one goal – stopping Netanyahu from gaining power.
Starting with Lieberman – whose voters originated from the right-wing bloc – political players started to make it impossible for Bibi to create a coalition – even if his ‘ideological bloc’ contained the most seats. It was an insurrection from within the camp. This worsened with Gideon Sa’ar breaking away from the Likud to form an ‘anti-Bibi Likud’ (the New Hope Party).
In a political environment where Likud’s hold on power is often just a few seats, this created an earthquake. Netanyahu couldn’t form a coalition. But neither could the opposition.
From a left-winger’s perspective what happened next was a dream come true. For those on the right it was nothing less than betrayal. Naftali Bennett (leader of a party placed to the right of the Likud) joined forces with the Left to build a coalition and finally evict Netanyahu from his seat of power.
Because much of the media has an anti-Bibi spin, Bennett got off lightly. In some quarters he was even lauded for his action. But from a ‘democratic’ perspective, he most certainly betrayed his electorate. It would be like the SNP joining forces with the Conservatives to keep Labour from power.
The election clock was ticking
For all the hopeful talk the coalition was never going to last long. The only ideology holding this group together was ‘just not Bibi’ – and it was inevitably going to be a short and bumpy ride. What held it together for so long was the knowledge that another election would probably see Netanyahu return. In the end, even that wasn’t enough and the coalition collapsed.
The upcoming election
Which leads us to the upcoming election. In theory the right-wing bloc enters this election strongly. For once Netanyahu goes into a campaign on the attack (as the opposition) rather than on the defensive (as government).
The uncertainties all reside within the coalition. They built an impossible coalition once – what is the chance that the numbers will work so precisely in their favour again?
The ex-PM Bennett, who is at times a clever political animal, has simply walked away. He had no political platform (he could hardly run for the same voter base again) and was facing a difficult campaign that would lessen his political value. He probably saw that it was better for him not to compete and thus build grounds for a return at a more favourable time. His party is probably finished and the remaining players will either scramble to find a safe home in another party or face potential electoral oblivion.
Gideon Sa’ar is another that could well see his party wiped off the political map.
It is not just the parties towards the right that have suffered. Meretz too – on the left – could possibly face oblivion.
Which is why the ‘anti-Bibi’ camp will be foolish to attempt to navigate an election ‘as is’. There are three parties who are in real danger of not crossing the electoral threshold. If the voter turn-out is strong and all three fail to cross the threshold, Netanyahu may win with a knockout.
Ignore the pollsters
This means we may see alliances – political unions. Labour and Meretz running together is an obvious potential one. Gideon Sa’ar will be scared of standing alone and may seek to unite with another party. And don’t rule out another ‘new party’ providing a fresh face entering the mix.
All of this creates problems and it makes guessing what is going to happen an almost impossible task.
So my main message here is *ignore* everything that anyone writes about how the election will unfold. There is not a political expert in the world that currently has a clue how the election results will play out. Worse still many of those trying to tell you, desperately want Netanyahu to lose. There is every reason not to listen.
The Yair Lapid strategy
If the anti-Bibi camp (and you can include most media and western politicians in this) seek to derail a Netanyahu victory, they have just four months with Yair Lapid at the helm to do it. This is the only option left open to them. If this fails they will almost certainly lose.
Look out for an intense campaign pushing statesmanlike Yair Lapid PM images into every newsreel, every column inch, every photo opportunity that is possible. Lapid is a well-seasoned TV personality and he knows how to act on camera. The forthcoming visit of US President Biden will present a golden opportunity for endless hours of footage – and expect Biden to play his part. Biden will hand Lapid political presents to help him look like a seasoned and successful leader.
Being PM is an important electoral asset. Be in no doubt that Lapid will meet every international leader he can. The goal will be to turn Lapid’s 18-22 seats into something larger – and to make sure they are not just taking votes from their friends.
Will it work? I have no idea. But I do know we are about to see a massive propaganda campaign. Both the ‘Bibi is a demon‘ camp and the ‘Isn’t Yair wonderful‘ camp are about to go into overdrive.
The bottom line is this. If I told you what I think the final outcome would be – like everyone else – I’d just be guessing in the dark.
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