As Israel goes into its fifth election in less than four years, opinion polls show that the country is more likely than not headed for yet another of the deadlocked results that have led to this point.
The moment the ballot boxes close at 10 PM on November 1, the heads of the two largest parties – current Prime Minister Yair Lapid of centrist Yesh Atid and former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud – could claim victory even as they scramble to reach the magic number of 61 Knesset seats that will give them a majority in the 120-seat parliament.
Opinion polls point to electoral impasse redux, with both the center-left bloc and the right-wing-religious bloc unable to muster those 61 seats. This means that both leaders are dependent on either their party or allies performing better than expected on Election Day or being able to lure a member of the opposing bloc to join their coalition.
“The most probable [outcome] is the one like the previous ones: no majority for any side, nobody wins,” said Prof. Gideon Rahat, the chair of the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, basing his assumption on the last four rounds of voting.
If this is the case, the country could well find itself heading into yet another election, with Yair Lapid remaining in power at the head of a caretaker government until the next Election Day, most likely in six months or so.
But according to Prof. Gad Barzilai, professor of law and professor emeritus at the University of Washington and former dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Haifa, there are “several factors” that could lead to an unexpected result on November 1.
“Nobody should be fool enough to be seen as a prophet, but there are several factors one should take into account,” Prof. Barzilai continued. “One factor [is] the electoral turnout among Israeli Arab Palestinians … if it collapses to under less than 40%, it will certainly damage the bloc against Netanyahu. This is a very crucial issue.
“The other crucial factor would be Meretz and the Labor party,” he said, referring to two left-wing parties that form part of Lapid’s bloc and are currently hovering on the cusp of the minimum four seats needed to enter the Knesset.
“If Meretz gets less than four seats, then this is the end of the party for the anti-Netanyahu bloc. Netanyahu has 61 [seats] and he would establish a ruling coalition.”
The third factor, he said, concerns Netanyahu’s bloc. “If [Yamina leader Ayelet] Shaked retires from the electoral competition, it may add one seat to the Netanyahu bloc,” he said. For while the right-wing Shaked would most likely join the former prime minister in a coalition, she is determined to keep going even though Yamina is currently predicted to win less than the required four seats and her voters would probably turn to another party in the Netanyahu camp.
“All of it depends actually on one seat, which is about 45,000 voters. So this is where we stand today and certainly might go to a sixth round of elections,” Barzilai said.
Rahat also speculated that the failure of some parties to reach the threshold to enter parliament could have an unexpected impact on the outcome of the vote.
This, he said, “can change the whole result because of the way that votes are translated, because you do not count the vote of parties that do not pass the electoral threshold.”
Yamina passing the threshold, Rahat said, would put Netanyahu over the top for forming a majority, but the Likud leader is not including his former justice minister and the current interior minister in his calculations as she is unlikely to survive to the next Knesset.
In the unlikely event that she does pass the threshold, he said, “I think she can be counted as part of Netanyahu’s bloc for sure.”
Barzilai proposed that an unpredicted security-related event immediately before the elections or even on Election Day itself could have a dramatic impact on the vote.
“One scenario might be – and God forbid, because people would be killed – a terrorist event. If it happens, then it will add support for the Netanyahu bloc. This is one scenario that may change the political game at the last minute,” he said, as voters could punish the current prime minister for loss of life due to the perceived failure of his policies.
“On the other hand, if Israel initiates some kind of very brilliant political-military action, it may add votes to Lapid,” Barzilai said.
Both Barzilai and Rahat believe that the ongoing political impasse is due primarily to one person – former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose 12-year stint as premier ended last year when the broad coalition currently headed by Yair Lapid took over. Netanyahu is presently embroiled in a multi-indictment corruption trial that he says is no reason to end his political career.
“According to opinion polls, 50% or more of the people in the last four elections claimed that the elections were a referendum on Netanyahu,” said Rahat.
“In the last election, it was I think 60%, so this is how the elections are framed in Israel these days – whether Netanyahu should continue to be prime minister or whether he should stop. … This is the main issue of the election,” he said.
For Barzilai, the former prime minister is a divisive figure whose presence is distracting Israel from graver issues.
“The whole parliamentary crisis which Israel [is experiencing] is around Mr. Netanyahu, obviously,” he said. “It’s basically – unfortunately – a referendum around Mr. Netanyahu. Unfortunately, because Israel does have severe challenges to resolve – the military occupation of the West Bank, the future of the conflict, and Iran, and I can go on and on. But if you look at the elections, it is basically surrounding the question of whether Mr. Netanyahu would be able to establish a government, taking into account his criminal indictment or not.”
Yet even if the turmoil of Israeli politics over the last four years continues, Barzilai is certain that it poses no serious threat to the stability of the country.
“If sixth elections are on the horizon, it will damage faith in democratic institutions, but I wouldn’t expect a collapse,” he said.
“In the United States, you had an attempt to revolt against election results and the United States didn’t collapse. Israel is as strong as the United States regarding its democratic fundamentals,” Barzilai said. “So I don’t think that six elections will destroy the State of Israel.”
The story is written by Sara Miller and reprinted with permission from the Media Line.